Jennie Alexander, attorney and woodworker, dies

Jennie D. Alexander, a retired attorney and noted furniture maker who practiced the art of green woodworking — using unseasoned or "green" wood — died of complications of a respiratory condition July 12 at Mercy Medical Center. The Federal Hill resident was 87.

Ms. Alexander wrote the 1978 book, “Make a Chair from a Tree” that was “a lightning bolt that ignited the woodworking passions of thousands of woodworkers and brought green woodworking out of the forest and into the modern workshop,” said Chris Schwarz, a fellow woodworker who lives in Fort Mitchell, Ky., and who published the book. “She changed the woodworking landscape.”

Born John David Alexander Jr. in Baltimore, she transitioned 11 years ago, becoming Jennie Alexander. Raised on Park and Guilford avenues, she was the child of John D. Alexander, an attorney, and his wife Dorothy Lowe, a secretary to the president of an insurance company.

As a child she was a regular customer of the old Boulevard Hardware store in Waverly. The shop’s owner gave Ms. Alexander handouts on tool use, printed by Stanley Tools.

Ms. Alexander’s mother collected old furniture, including a post-and-rung chair with a fiber seat. “I liked that chair. It was comfortable, low and stocky but had an elevated air to it,” Ms. Alexander wrote in a memoir.

She was a 1948 graduate of the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, where she worked in the school’s shop. She enrolled in the Johns Hopkins University to study engineering, but was bored by classes she felt repeated those at Polytechnic. Plus, “I was interested in music,” she said in the memoir.

Ms. Alexander founded a repertory jazz ensemble, the Southland Trio, and played in local nights spots including the old Martick’s on Mulberry Street. She later played with the Baltimore Jazz Trio.

She received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s College and later sat on its Board of Visitors and Governors. She was also a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Law, and was admitted to the Maryland Bar in 1959.

She was a partner in Allen, Thieblot and Alexander and had an office at the World Trade Center. She wrote numerous articles pertaining to family law and taught at the University of Maryland Law School from from 1965 to 1972. She sat on the Governor’s Commission on Domestic Relations Law from 1976 to 1986.

Mary Baldwin, an attorney who worked with Ms. Alexander, said she “had a strong personality and was always prepared. She persevered and knew how to use her intelligence in the law to her clients’ advantage.”

Her interest in classic furniture was rekindled when he met Charles Hummel, curator emeritus at Winterthur Museum in Delaware. Ms. Alexander — she was known simply as “Alexander” by friends and colleagues — became fascinated with old chairs, even broken ones. She studied why they failed.

“Alexander was a hobbyist and was trying to learn how to make a chair in the early 1970s,” said Peter Follansbee, a friend and former student who lives in Kingston, Mass. He said Ms. Alexander “met some some museum curators and got into the old tool culture,” leading to publication of her book.

Mr. Follansbee said she “made ladderback chairs with a woven seat. It is a simple chair that is part of an ancient tradition.”

Ms. Alexander’s book was so well received that she was asked to give classes. A 1984 article in The Baltimore Sun noted that when she wanted to start a green wood project, she “heads to the woods and cuts down a tree.”

She had a home and woodworking shop on Light Street near Gittings Street.

“Among her favorite tools were a drawknife and a spokeshaver,” said Jennie Boyd, who assisted Ms. Alexander. “Her chairs are beautifully simple. She made sure the back slats supported your back.”

Ms. Alexander was a member of the Hamilton Street Club.

”Her house, workshop, and garden occupy one of the largest properties in Federal Hill,” said James Ulmer, a fellow club member. “For many years she was a staple of the southwest corner of the Friday lunch table and will be long and well-remembered by her fellow members. She was an active personality and had opinions on a variety of subjects.”

Harper Alexander Burke, a daughter, said Ms. Alexander did not want a funeral, but instead “wanted a party.” The event is being planned for the fall.

In addition to Ms. Burke, survivors include two other daughters, Stephanie Vaiden Stone of Street, Md., and Racheal Alexander Scott of Westminster, Vt.; five grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren. A wife of 36 years, Emily Joyce Leach, died in 1996. A son, John D. Alexander III, died in 2015.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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