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Dan Rodricks

Dan Rodricks: Fascinating history in a big old Mount Vernon mansion | COMMENTARY

Sal and Meenu Choudhary on the front steps of a former Mount Vernon mansion known over the years as the Charles Royal and the Halburton. They purchased the building for $1.25 million.

I don’t know if the Baltimoreans of 1914 were scandalized by it — hard to tell from a distance of 109 years — but the wealthy family residing in the stone mansion at 1301 N. Charles Street in Mount Vernon contributed mightily to the city’s diet of gossip at the time.

There were lavish parties, a secret divorce and an equally secret marriage of a 57-year-old attorney to his 30-year-old stenographer, and a debutante’s romance with an Italian count. I’d throw in murder except that the death of Mrs. David Stewart was ruled a drug overdose.

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And I haven’t even mentioned how David Stewart, a prominent attorney and real estate investor, shocked the segregated city in 1910 by declaring that he, a prosperous white man, would be glad to have Black Baltimoreans as neighbors.

I’ll provide some details in a moment.

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First, you’re probably wondering how I got into this. Simple: Salil “Sal” Choudhary.

When I last mentioned that name in this space, it was to tell you about Choudhary’s earnest belief in Baltimore as a city with Big Potential but not enough Big Think, especially when it comes to renovating old houses, turning renters into homeowners and attracting more residents.

Choudhary is a high-energy investor who finds efforts at renewal burdened by bureaucracy, parochialism and status quo thinking.

When we spoke in 2021, he was looking for ways to lure other investors to the city, and he had some good ideas for creating affordable housing.

Now back to 1301 N. Charles and the big mansion, known over the years as the Charles Royal or The Haliburton: Choudhary and his wife, Meenu, bought it for $1.25 million, and now they want to do something grand with it. “We want to do something that makes a statement about how we feel about Baltimore,” he says.

But what?

The big stone corner with the Tudor top has been through a lot: Originally a 22-room mansion with three baths, it was divided into apartments and its ground floor turned to commercial uses. The upper levels have been shut down for a few years, and the Choudharys are now paying for upgrades.

But what’s next?

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Apartments again? Another boutique hotel? Office space for startups?

Whatever comes next, the Choudharys say, the building should reflect its Baltimore history.

I told them I would look into it, and I’m glad I did. The effort required time travel, and this time I ended up in late 19th/early 20th century Baltimore society. Here’s what I learned about the big house with the help of Baltimore Sun librarian Paul McCardell and former Maryland archivist Ed Papenfuse:

Stewart, the attorney aforementioned, was from a family prominent among Maryland Democrats. For a time in the late 19th Century, he practiced law with his father, John Stewart. His father died in 1901 from “a general breaking down of the system,” according to The Sun. David Stewart was by then a wealthy owner of multiple properties in central Baltimore, including the mansion at Charles and Preston.

Stewart married a widow, Alice Gerry Patterson, who had a daughter named Annah St. Claire. In January 1895, the Stewarts invited 700 guests to stop by and say hi during Claire’s four-hour debutante presentation in the big house.

Four years later, an Italian aristocrat, Count Cesare da Conturbia, wooed Claire and married her in the big house. The couple lived in the count’s villa near Milan. (I note that Claire’s father was a nephew of Betsy Patterson, who nearly a century earlier had married Napoleon Bonaparte’s kid brother, Jerome. I don’t know if Claire becoming a contessa was a case of “keeping up with Betsy” — hard to tell from a distance of 124 years — but I certainly relish the prospect.)

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In 1910, the year the Baltimore City Council passed the racist ordinance that codified segregation in housing, David Stewart made an extraordinary public statement. In Sun stories reporting on a “Negro invasion” in parts of Baltimore, Stewart said he would gladly have Black people as neighbors. “The sooner people realize it is no disgrace to live next door to negroes, the better it will be for Baltimore,” he said. “The negro hullabaloo is all nonsense. … They make good neighbors, and as there are hundreds of vacant houses because of the migration to the suburbs and country, why not have these same vacant houses occupied?” It’s difficult to say what the reaction was — hard to tell from a distance of 113 years — but I can’t imagine the city council named him Baltimorean of the Year.

In 1913, the Stewarts had a secret divorce and, a year later, each turned up with new spouses. Mrs. Stewart married a New Yorker named Francis Griswold, a cousin of her second husband, while Mr. Stewart, then 57, married his 30-year-old stenographer, Edith Davis. However, the new Mrs. Stewart died in Paris during the couple’s honeymoon. Her mother told The Sun that her daughter had overdosed on painkillers she had been taking since having surgery. As if to dash any suspicions of foul play, she said of her son-in-law: “No better man ever lived.” It’s difficult to say whether that’s true — hard to tell from a distance of 109 years — but David Stewart certainly left a few fingerprints on Baltimore and the mansion at Charles and Preston.

I believe we have given Sal and Meenu Choudhary enough material to theme their new project. My job is done here.


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