“If, after I depart this vale, you ever remember me and have thought to please my ghost, forgive some sinner and wink your eye at some homely girl.” H.L. Mencken
Baltimore is a city steeped in history. From Fort McHenry and the National Anthem to the train tracks which saw the first blood of the Civil War, the Monumental city has long hitched it’s star to the people and events which have made this country unique. But with the news of the idea to either lease or sell spots like the Shot Tower and the War Memorial Building, or the recent closing and subsequent vandalization of the Edgar Allan Poe House, many are wondering if anyone in Baltimore is minding the store. For at least one civic minded group, that answer is an earnest yes. But that affirmation is almost fifteen years in the making.
In an exclusive interview conducted at the Mencken House with Richard Pickens, president of the Friends of the Mencken House, The Baltimore-Post Examiner has learned that plans to restore and reopen the Mencken House are about to be put into action. Once approved, fans of H.L. Mencken can look forward to finally experiencing the house in much the same way Mencken lived it.
Mencken was a giant in the literary world of the early 20th century. A longtime writer for The Baltimore Sun and editor of the American Mercury, Mencken wrote about (amongst many other topics) language, religion, society, temperance, music, politics and populism. Known in his day as the Sage of Baltimore, Mencken’s humor and satire are often compared to Ambrose Bierce and Mark Twain. Next to Edgar Allan Poe, Mencken is arguably the most important literary figure in the history of Baltimore. That’s saying something, given that other notable writers who once called Baltimore home include F. Scott Fitzgerald, Upton Sinclair, John Dos Passos, Karl Shapiro, John Murphy, Gertrude Stein, Henry James, Tupac Shakur and Emily Post.
Mencken’s home is at 1524 Hollins Street, in Baltimore’s Union Square neighborhood. Mencken lived most of his life in the stately Italianate brick row house, only moving away for a short time during his brief marriage to Sara Haardt, an English teacher at Goucher College. When Haardt succumbed to tuberculosis in 1935, Mencken returned to Hollins St. and remained there in residence for the rest of his life. Mencken once wrote, “I have lived in one house in Baltimore for nearly 45 years. It has changed in that time, as I have—but somehow it still remains the same…. It is as much a part of me as my two hands. If I had to leave it I’d be as certainly crippled as if I lost a leg.”
H.L. Mencken died in 1956. Eleven years later, on the death of Mencken’s younger brother, August, the house was bequeathed to the University of Maryland, Baltimore. August gave the house to the University of Maryland for social work and student housing. The City of Baltimore acquired the property from the university in 1983, and the H. L. Mencken House became part of the now defunct City Life Museums. The house, which was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1983, has been closed to the general public since 1997 but is opened occasionally by appointment for group visits and for special events.
Two main groups have worked for years to secure, restore and reopen the property – Friends of the H.L. Mencken House and the H.L. Mencken Legacy. Pickens said the planning involved preservationists, city officials, architects and members of the two Mencken groups.
Pickens laments that the discussions have gone on for so long. “We’ve been trying to come up with a comprehensive plan which pleases everybody, while simultaneously negotiating for the last twelve years with the city.” Pickens admitted that dealing with the city was at times a challenge; mainly because, “each new administration has different priorities.”
The house is solid but it will still need a lot of work. Falling plaster, peeling lead paint, a sagging ceiling, water warped hardwood and termite chewed joists are just some of the many issues the carpenters will encounter. A rehabilitation of the property will have a two-fold thrust. First, to bring the house back as closely as possible to the way it looked when Mencken lived there in the 1940’s. Second, to make the house user friendly for visitors and special events.
Part of making the house more user friendly will include installing a fully functioning catering kitchen and making the bathroom facilities ADA compliant.
After the renovations have been completed and everything not related to Mencken has been removed, the final part of the restoration will be put into place. Mencken’s furniture, which is currently in storage at the Maryland Historical Society, will be returned. Fortunate for the planners, a copious catalog with pictures was made of the house prior to the removal of the contents. Many photos of the house as it looked in the 1940’s still survive.
Getting the plan ready for city review has been a time-consuming process. The Department of Finance and the City Solicitors office have both been involved. The city has told the two groups they want to run the plan by the Board of Estimates before the end of the year. People who have been helpful with moving the process forward include Deputy Kaliope Parthemos of the mayors office, Jeff Buchheit of Baltimore Heritage Planning and Richard Kagan, the city solicitor for Real Estate.
If everything falls into place, work could begin as early as 2013. The entire renovation process could take anywhere from 3-5 years and will be largely funded by a three million dollar bequest.
Once it has been reopened, Pickens says the goal is for the Mencken house to be a dynamic destination, as opposed to static, one-time tourist stop. This would include phasing in set visiting hours, holding regular special events, creating a vibrant writers center and bringing in established and student writers. One especially intriguing idea that is being floated is to have a live-in docent, preferably a writer.
Pickens says he is also hopeful the reopened attraction will in some way partner with other sites in the area which were important to Mencken, such as the Hollins Market, Mt. Clare Station, the number two public library and Loudon Park Cemetery. Other nearby attractions such as the now shuttered Poe House, the B&O Railroad Museum and the Babe Ruth Museum would also make compelling partners.
Pickens encourages those who are interested in following the progress and in supporting the house to go to the group’s website or friend its facebook page. Pickens is clearly excited to see the plans moving forward. Offering this writer – in the truest tradition of H.L. Mencken – a cold beer at the end of the interview, Pickens smiled as he said, “We’ve rounded a corner.”
Editors note: While preparing this story to go to press, The Baltimore Post-Examiner was shocked and saddened to learn that Richard Pickens, the President of the Friends of the H.L. Mencken house, had suddenly passed away. The entire staff of the Baltimore Post-Examiner wishes to extend our heartfelt condolences to the Pickens family and to the many lives Richard Pickens touched as he worked tirelessly to ensure the legacy of H.L. Mencken. There will be a Life Celebration for Richard Pickens on Monday, Dec. 3, from 6 to 8 p.m. at the George P. Kalas Funeral Home, 2973 Solomons Island Rd., Edgewater, MD. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to The Friends of the H.L. Mencken House, P.O. Box 22501, Baltimore, MD 21203-4501.