Romaine Stec Somerville, an art historian and leader in Baltimore historic preservation, dies

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Romaine Stec Somerville worked to establish Baltimore’s first five historic neighborhood districts at Mount Vernon, Bolton Hill, Seton Hill, Union Square and Dickeyville.

Romaine Stec Somerville, an art historian and leader in historic preservation circles who later directed the former Maryland Historical Society, died of complications of a hip fracture Tuesday. She was a patient at the Gilchrist Center in Towson.

She was 91 and lived in Bolton Hill for many years.


“Romaine was a champion for preservation on all levels,” said David H. Gleason, a friend and fellow preservationist. “She sought to bring to light and to promote the history of Baltimore City. She was truly a great steward of Baltimore’s historic legacies.”

Born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, she was the daughter of Michael J. Stec, a physician, and Julia, a teacher and homemaker. Her parents were of Ukrainian ancestry. She earned degrees at Marymount College and Columbia University, spent a year at the Sorbonne in Paris and studied at Yale University. She enjoyed horseback riding and skiing in the Poconos as a young woman.


She took a job as a Baltimore Museum of Art decorative arts curator shortly after taking a sabbatical from Yale.

“I arrived at Mount Vernon Place,” she said of her 1960 introduction to Baltimore. “I looked around the square and fell madly in love with the architecture. I said to myself, ‘If this job is at all acceptable, I’m going to live in a city that has a monument like this.’”

She nevertheless thought it would be a temporary job. But on a blind date on New Year’s Eve, she met her future husbandFrank P.L. Somerville at the L’Hirondelle Club. They married in 1962 and later renovated a Bolton Hill home.

2005 file photo. Romaine Somerville heads a group that wants to turn the former Peale Museum on Holliday Street into the Baltimore City History Center.

“For 60 years, she devoted herself to protecting and promoting the history, art, culture and architecture of the city of Baltimore and the state of Maryland,” said her daughter, Julia Somerville Ulstrup. “She worked to make the city a better place for its residents. She was proud to be a Baltimorean.”

Mrs. Somerville went on to become the executive director of the city’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation. She worked to establish Baltimore’s first five historic neighborhood districts at Mount Vernon, Bolton Hill, Seton Hill, Union Square and Dickeyville. She was also an advocate of Baltimore’s dollar house homesteading program.

Her daughter said she was an opponent of a planned interstate highway through the city that would have wiped out neighborhoods. She also spoke against a plan to remove Baltimore City Hall’s landmark cast-iron dome in the 1970s. Decades later, she assisted the rebirth of The Peale on Holliday Street.

“I remember as a kid, having a station wagon full of bumper stickers saying, ‘Save the City Hall Dome,” her daughter said.

Friends said she retained her scholarly ways before she became a curator at the Maryland Historical Society, now known as the Maryland Center for History and Culture, a post she held from 1978 to 1984. She was its first woman director.


“She was a trailblazer at the Maryland Historical Society,” said Mark Letzer, president of the Maryland Center for History and Culture. “She had the best twinkle in her eye. She was cherubic and worked miracles wherever she went.”

Stiles T. Colwill, a friend and curator, said: “Romaine was a towering figure in Baltimore’s arts community. She encouraged all the younger curators she hired to do major exhibitions and catalogs. When I asked about doing a show on the painter Francis Guy, she said, “Run with it.”

“She could be great fun, had a wicked sense of humor. She and her husband were quite a pair and they played off one another. She could be inquisitive. If she thought she was right, she would not let go.”

Beverly Whiting Young, a friend and former co-worker, said: “She could be a force of nature when she felt strongly about something. She was determined and steadfast. She was truly passionate about the city of Baltimore.”

Somerville promoted the history, art and culture of Maryland. She organized numerous permanent displays, special exhibits, school programs and community events designed to commemorate aspects of Maryland history and life.

“Romaine was interested in scholarly research. She recognized the importance of the historical society’s fine and decorative arts and was always seeking to have new scholarship and exhibits that opened these to the public,” said Gregory Weidman, curator at Hampton National Historic Site and Fort McHenry National Monument.

Romaine Stec Somerville was executive director of the Society for the Preservation of Federal Hill and Fell’s Point Inc.

Mrs. Somerville believedthat Baltimore would survive, in part, through education and tourism.

“Educational tourism is a fast-growing trend throughout America. By offering visitors the opportunity to explore individual interests — baseball, railroading, music, science, visionary art, the Civil War, African-American history, — Baltimore’s network of specialized museums has tremendous economic potential,” she wrote in The Sun in 1997.

She also wrote: “Museums are about keeping conventioneers and families in Baltimore for one more meal or one more night to see something that is of special interest to that individual or family. Baltimore needs more museums, not fewer.”

She went on to head a neighborhood-based preservation group in Fells Point and Federal Hill from 1993 to 2000.

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“As executive director of the Society for the Preservation of Federal Hill and Fell’s Point Inc., she was instrumental in providing leadership in efforts to preserve the 18th century London Coffee House and the George Wells House,” said Mr. Gleason, a friend who currently heads the society. “Romaine guided the redevelopment of the Trolley Barn on Thames Street as the Visitor Center for the Society.”

She promoted the community as a tourist destination.


“A good example is Fells Point. More than a half-million visitors came to Fells Point in 1996 by water transportation alone — only to get right back on the boat because there was no destination ‘museum’ to tell them about the 18th century community and to direct them to area shops, restaurants and taverns,” she said in 1997.

She was also active in Baltimore Heritage, Preservation Maryland and The Peale. She also was a consultant to the Mother Seton House and was a guest curator for the Roman Catholic Church Bicentennial Exhibit, Archdiocese of Baltimore.

As a Bolton Hill resident, she attended Corpus Christi Roman Catholic Church. She made Ukrainian mushroom barley soup for the neighborhood’s annual festival. A fan of theater, she often took a day off and visited New York for a matinee.

A memorial service is being planned.

Survivors include her husband of 60 years, Frank P. L. Somerville, a retired Baltimore Sun journalist; a daughter, Julia Somerville Ulstrup of Washington, D.C.; and two grandchildren.