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Dan Rodricks: Just in time for Halloween — a photo of the Baltimore City Hall ghost | COMMENTARY

Avery Aisenstark, director of the Department of Legislative Reference, photographed this ghostly image in a City Hall window in 2012.
Avery Aisenstark, director of the Department of Legislative Reference, photographed this ghostly image in a City Hall window in 2012. (Avery Aisenstark)

The tophats and moustaches of post-Civil War Baltimore gathered for the setting of the cornerstone of City Hall on Oct. 18, 1867. Those still alive eight years later gathered again to celebrate the building’s completion. A grand beauty in the French Renaissance Revival style, City Hall is now 146 years old, and old enough to have a ghost.

I don’t know how else to explain the photograph that accompanies this column.

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That I report this on Halloween weekend 2021 is serendipitous. I only learned of this apparition two weeks ago — on Oct. 18, in fact, exactly 154 years to the day of the cornerstone ceremony.

As I interviewed Avery Aisenstark, the longtime director of the Department of Legislative Reference, he mentioned that a ghost had made an appearance in his office — or, more specifically, in the window some 12 feet above his desk. He said he had a photograph.

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I let the matter go, trying to focus my attention on Aisenstark, a legal scholar and unheralded public servant.

Before becoming director of legislative reference in the mid-1990s, he had been an associate city solicitor and, before that, a partner in a law firm. Aisenstark had engaged in the tedious but important work of charter revisions; he became adept at turning the language of legislation into the language of law. He had also served as chief author of legal opinions for one of Maryland’s finest and wisest attorneys general, Steve Sachs. It was Sachs who suggested I visit Aisenstark in City Hall. The former AG said I would be amused if not fascinated by Aisenstark’s keen interest in Cervante’s Don Quixote. Aisenstark’s office, Sachs said, was filled with dozens of books, artwork and artifacts related to the “Man of La Mancha.”

Unfortunately, some officious factotum had ordered Don Quixote into boxes four years ago in preparation for a sixth-floor renovation that, of course, never occurred. I found Aisenstark’s walls and shelves bare, his entire Quixote collection in archivist’s purgatory, awaiting removal to a library or museum. It was disappointing, but Aisenstark was anything but. In fact, I found him to be a congenial fellow, serious about his work but easily moved to humorous comment on all manner of things.

So I came back to the ghost, and asked to see the photograph.

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And there you have it — a ghostly visage in the oval window of a small, marble dormer on the northeast corner of City Hall. The face appears to be howling, as if trapped inside. It has a large head reminiscent of the late William Donald Schaefer, mayor from 1971 until 1987. (The 100th anniversary of Schaefer’s birth will be commemorated on Tuesday afternoon beside his statue at the Inner Harbor.)

Regarding the photograph, Aisenstark says he was at work on Sept. 13, 2012, when someone — “I forget who” — alerted him to the strange image. Aisenstark went outside and snapped the photo.

“Given the window’s excessive height from my office floor, it would have been difficult for anyone to create the image from inside,” he says. “Nor have I heard anything from anyone to even suggest that it was a man- or woman-made prank.”

Right. Why execute a good prank and not take credit for it?

Is the image a face on a balloon? Again, that would fall into the prank category.

Is it a reflection of a cloud? I suppose it could be, but nothing similar appears in the larger window nearby.

Aisenstark says he has not seen the ghost since the day he snapped the photo.

Is he playing a trick on us? He does not strike me as the type. Besides, Aisenstark has never before sought attention for the photo. He’s a busy man who does Baltimore quiet, good service. That service now extends to providing his city with a spooky mystery to relish from this day forward. Thanks, we needed that. And Happy Halloween.

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