Baltimore is an old city, full of old, wonderful things. About one of every three buildings in the city is on the National Register of Historic Places, and the city itself was one of the three largest in America for the first half of the 19th century.
Like many old things, people included, it wears this history on its face — in the shapes and styles of its buildings, its harbor and monuments — but to walk Baltimore’s streets is to be confronted by the aged lines in that face, and, for me, to fall in love with them.
From the imposing Victorian beauty of Mount Vernon that reveals the extreme wealth of the 19th century elite it was built for, to the compact and efficient brick rowhomes of the old industrial workers and immigrants in Fells Point and Canton, every block of Baltimore is a history lesson in disguise.
And to quote Alan Moore, “If you can invest that bricks and mortar with some history, some mythology, then you can transform the place that you’re in to something from Arabian Nights. … and you might eventually come to the conclusion that you could be a wondrous creature.”
Here are some of my favorite old things in the city.
It may not be the most historic building on this list, but it is my favorite. Prior to working at The Banner, I lived in a home on a back alley to Howard Street, where immigrants, freemen, and enslaved people once lived serving the mansions they were attached to. Every day, on my and my dog’s constitutional walk, we passed under the towering Gothic spire of the First Presbyterian Church.
Once the tallest building in Baltimore, now merely the tallest spire, the church’s sharp vertical angles of red sandstone suggest a haunted version of natural wonders like Utah’s Bryce Canyon “Amphitheatre,” and was intended to “to evoke the Gothic ideals of holy flames reaching to the heavens,” according to the church. While a plaque near the front entrance notes that the First Presbyterian Church was established in Baltimore in 1761, the building itself began construction in 1854, with the steeple being fully in place by 1875.
Even now, with Baltimore holding buildings nearly twice as tall as the Church, the spire can be seen from the street like a beacon through much of Mount Vernon, and I can’t help but imagine what an awe-inspiring landmark the church must have been for the horse-drawn Baltimoreans of the 1800s.
Growing up just outside D.C., I spent much more time in the capitol than I did in Baltimore. With the maturity and wisdom of age, however, I’ve come to recognize Baltimore as the better city. Of the many things it holds over D.C., the original Washington Monument is probably the most ironic. In Mount Vernon Place, less than half a mile from the First Presbyterian Church, stands an earlier monument to George Washington, completed nearly 60 years before its larger imitator to the south.
The monument is a tall, marble column, surrounded by an 1800s cobblestone traffic circle that sits in the center of four gardens, like a Celtic cross of marble, stone and grass. Pick a direction to turn in and look. On one side of you is the George Peabody Library, internationally renowned for its ornate interior. On another, the Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, another Gothic church and nearly as old as First Presbyterian, made of serpentine metabasalt, a stone that gives the building a pale green color, like the patina of rusted copper. Another turn and you’re facing the Walters Art Museum.
Sitting in those parks and internalizing the incredible architecture and history of this city feels like a secret treasure only Baltimoreans know about.
Before moving to Mt. Vernon, I lived in Fells Point, just off Patterson Park. Working from home, I would walk into the square and down to the water, to grab a coffee and a bite to eat for lunch. The area was one of the original towns that came together to form the city of Baltimore, and that age shows in the buildings and cobbled streets.
One of those buildings houses The Horse You Came In On Saloon — a bar that first opened in 1775 and has been running since. It self-reports as America’s oldest continually operated saloon, and while other bars in the country also claim that title, part of the magic of the era of gunslingers comes from the suspension of disbelief.
Like all the bars in Fells Point, it’s loud and just a little too energetic for me once the weekend strikes, but if you can get there at noon on a weekend, or Tuesday at 4 p.m., and you’re lucky enough to be alone with the 18th-century bar at the front and the ghost of Edgar Allan Poe (who’s said to haunt the dive), it’s as good a dive bar for peaceful drinking as any.
Last but not least, we’re coming back to Mount Vernon for a newer sort of history. The Belvedere Hotel on North Charles Street opened in 1903 as the city’s first luxury hotel and eventually became condos (sad), but I love it for the opulence of the lobby, the out-of-time photo gallery on the way to the bar in the back, and The Owl Bar, an iconography-filled, lodge-themed bar that sits in the back of the hotel.
Walking in, the high pearl ceilings with gilded carvings and shining white marble floor present an image of something from “The Great Gatsby.” And, of course, F. Scott. Fitzgerald frequented the bar, once throwing his daughter a birthday party in the ballroom before kicking everyone out to drink alone.
On the way to the Owl Bar, you walk through a short corridor, the walls filled with black-and-white photos of some instantlyrecognizable patrons of the original hotel, and others you know you can place but can’t quite name.
The mahogany-colored wood and tiled bar appears (and is) as comfortable as the lobby is lavish. Stuffed animal heads hang from every wall, and an owl statue — which supposedly functioned during Prohibition to alert patrons that alcohol was being served — sits on the bar itself. The Maryland Center for History and Culture has some very cool photos showing how little the bar has changed since the turn of the 20th century.
Put together, it feels like drinking in the Overlook Hotel from Stephen King’s “The Shining,” down to the black-and-white pictures of former patrons.
Of course, to invest physical places with their history and love them for that requires that we also be aware of the evils they and their creators were party to. In 1800s Baltimore, especially in Fells Point, that means awareness of these locations’ roles in the slave trade. Baltimore Heritage, Inc. — a Baltimore-based historical and architectural preservation non-profit — has several good resources on the topic.