Celebrating our History
The park and fountain as well as parts of Stricker, Hollins and Lombard streets were transported back to the 1850s as Union Square played the title role in the lush 1997 movie adaptation of Henry Jamess biting novel Washington Square from acclaimed director Agnieszka Holland.
The excitement continued in 1997 as the community celebrated the sesquicentennial of Union Square with a re-dedication of the park including the placement of a stone tablet commemorating the event at the foot of one of the pavilion columns. The celebration was highlighted with concerts and a marching band performance, and the dedication of a new park at Pratt and Gilmor streets.
Throughout the year, there are many impromptu events in the Square, including neighborhood dinners, outdoor movies, tag sales, Easter Egg Hunts, Halloween Pumpkin Carvings, and various other parties.
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|H. L. Mencken Sites
The Mencken Society comprises a dedicated group of bibliophiles who honor the memory and living works of Henry Louis Mencken – author, critic, newspaper man, iconoclast. The Society meets several times a year, including the annual meeting on the occasion of Mr. Mencken’s birthday each September. The annual $25 dues include all member letters and the quarterly Menckeniana published by Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Library. Without the quarterly, annual dues are reduced to $12.50. To become a member, send the appropriate dues with your name and address to:
The Mencken Society,
P.O. Box 16218, Baltimore, MD 21210.
For their website, www.mencken.org, click here.
The Friends of the H. L. Mencken House defines its purpose as educating the public about the life and legacy of H. L. Mencken, and acquiring his lifelong residence at 1524 Hollins Street for the purpose of restoring, preserving and operating a nonprofit museum. Once part of Baltimore’s City Life Museums, the house, with many original furnishings, was a superlative example of how successful families lived during its era. Mr. Mencken’s personality can be seen in everything from the parquet floors to the garden tiles. Through acquisition of Mencken’s home, the Friends of the H. L. Mencken House plan to restore the house to its condition at the time he lived there – fortunately, this is possible due to extensive photo documentation of the house during the later years of his life. For more information, including membership in the organization, contact:
Friends of the H. L. Mencken House,
733 Martin Drive, Catonsville, MD 21229.
For their website, www.menckenhouse.org, click here.
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First YMCA in the U.S.
|At 1504 W. Baltimore Street is the residence of Malachai Mills, a free-born African-American businessman in the early and mid-19th century. Mr. Mills was a prominent cabinetmaker and carpenter, providing furnishings and carpentry for many of the early homes in the neighborhood. The Union Square neighborhood is at the head of a preservation effort to revitalize this valuable structure as a “historic life museum” and as a preservation, fine arts, or urban studies field site for local universities.
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The first YMCA building in the United States, specifically constructed as such, was built at Schroeder and Pratt for a cost of $7,000 in 1859.
In 1844, the Young Men's Christian Association was founded by George Williams and 11 others in London because they wanted to help other young men find God. The YMCA first came to the U.S. in 1851 but, until the Baltimore YMCA, its buildings were converted from existing structures.
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Did you know?
The original name of Lombard Street was King George Street; Baltimore Street used to be Market Street; and South Carey Street was once known as Wooster Street.
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A Chronicle of Union Square and Environs
|Begun during the influx of English, Irish and German immigration of the 1830s, the Union Square / Hollins Market Historic District is a dense area of rowhouses that includes Federal, Greek Revival and Italianate architectural styles. To the west, Union Square Park contains an ornate fountain and Greek Revival pavilion, and forms one of the two open spaces preserved in the neighborhood. Hollins Market, in the east, is an Italianate-style market house built in 1838 and expanded in 1864, and is the oldest city market still in operation.
A large part of the neighborhood is built on the former estate of merchant-shipper Thorowgood Smith (1744-1810). Smith was Baltimores second mayor, from 1804 to 1808, filling the vacancy caused by the resignation of James Calhoun (Calhoun Street passes through the Union Square neighborhood). In 1799, Smith built his summer home, Willow Brook, in the Palladian style popular in mid-18th century England and the United States. At the time, the property was on the outskirts of the city. Across town, next door to the Shot Tower, Smiths principal residence is restored as the Circa 1790 Home, open to the public, and maintained by the Womens Civic League.
Upon the death of the childless Smith, the villa with twenty-six acres passed to his wife, the former Mary Blaikley Stith (1750-1822) and then to a nephew, merchant and privateer John Donnell.
Donnell was responsible for parceling out the first plots of land for the construction of homes. Three sons of John Donnell leased grounds around the park, laid out specifications for houses, and graded and paved streets bordering the Square in the 1840s.
Dubbed Millionaires Row, the portion of Stricker Street facing the Square featured the Italianate residences of bankers, investors, and factory owners. Other variations of the Italianate style lined the blocks leading up to and surrounding the square. Less ornate homes were put up in groups on side and alley streets, but all shared many identical features such as cornices, marble steps, and iron work. Developers and homeowners attempted to build the most economic dwellings possible, so they crammed narrow rowhouses along every road, avenue and alley in the district. Common brick was often used on side walls, with hard surface English brick on the front. The largest rooms were typically the front parlors and master bedrooms smaller rooms were placed to the rear.
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||Ceiling medallions, cornices, staircase millwork, and fireplace designs were individualized features, chosen from home order catalogs. Most of the wrought or cast ironwork in the neighborhood was made in the Hayward-Bartlett Factory near the B&O Yards to the south of the neighborhood. The buildings were brick and low-scale no more than three stories except for some commercial buildings. Evenly spaced doorsteps, windows, and doors, as well as continuous rooflines create the visual rhythms for which Baltimore rowhouses are noted. Although residential construction ended in the 1880s, commercial building continued into the early 20th century.
The two-and-one-half acres for the park was approved for that use and donated by the Donnells in 1847. The park is one block square, bordered by Lombard, Stricker, Gilmor, and Hollins streets. The landscape of Union Square with its walkways, pavilion, fountain, and wrought iron lamps recalls Victorian Era Baltimore. Architect John F. Hoss designed the iron Greek-style pavilion with fluted columns in 1850 it covers a natural spring that was once accessible by steps and, at one time, supplied water to the B&O Railroad. The source of the name Union Square is uncertain but probably reflects the patriotic sentiment of this time before the Civil War. Fog scenes of the Square, lights agleam over wet pavements and barren limbs, were often featured in local landscape artistry.
Willow Brook, the estate house, was acquired in 1864 by Emily Caton McTavish, granddaughter of Charles Carroll (a signer of the Declaration of Independence), and daughter of General Winfield Old Fuss and Feathers Scott (a hero in the War of 1812 and unsuccessful Whig presidential candidate in 1852). Within a year, she donated it to the Roman Catholic Church as a school for delinquent girls, under the administration of the Congregation of the Good Shepherd. Additions and renovations changed the original structure over the next 100 years until the school closed in 1965, the property was sold, and the buildings were dismantled. Willow Brooks interior oval drawing room had long enjoyed national acclaim and, still intact, it was moved to the Baltimore Museum of Art for public and permanent display. Steuart Hill Elementary School was constructed on the site. The area was designated a National Register Historic District in 1967, two years after Willow Brook was razed.
The original iron urns in the park were smelted down during World War II for the war effort. Economic decline occurred in the mid-20th until extensive rehabilitation began during a renaissance in the 1960s and 1970s. The Square benefitted from new lighting, shrubs, pink sidewalks, and cast iron benches installed during the 1970s.
H. L. Mencken House
Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1985, this Italianate brick row house at 1524 Hollins Street was the home of one of Baltimore’s most famous citizens – noted Baltimore Sun journalist and author Henry Louis Mencken lived here from 1883 until his death in 1956. Mencken wrote of his home: “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.” (Charles A. Fecher, Mencken: A Study of His Thought Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1978, p. 47)
After his death on January 26, 1956, his home was bequeathed to the University of Maryland. In 1983 the City of Baltimore acquired the H. L. Mencken House from the University, in exchange for the Old Pine Street Station. With period furniture, his restored second-floor office, and backyard gazebo, the H. L. Mencken House opened as part of the City Life Museums and a center for theatrical, literary and musical events. Although the City Life Museums closed in 1997, the landmark still displays a special commemorative plaque about its famous occupant. The house is currently not open to the public and now stands empty, a shuttered burden for the City of Baltimore, which plans to dispose of the property. The organization “Friends of the H. L. Mencken House” is leading efforts of several groups to redirect and expand the use of this neighborhood treasure.
A curmudgeon with an acidic writing style, Mencken gained national recognition as one of the most influential critics of American culture, politics, education and life, coining the word “booboisie” to describe the American public. The word “SoWeBo” (for SouthWest Baltimore) is also attributed to Mencken. His influence was unmistakable as the foremost authority on the American language through his multi-volumed The American Language. He also discovered and championed such new and bold American writers as James Branch Cabell and Sinclair Lewis. Mencken’s diatribes against American culture and democracy went so deep that he once received an appreciative autographed photo from Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II. Mencken himself came from German ancestry, and was vocal about his opposition to American involvement in World War I. Mencken’s interests went beyond the politics and contemporary culture of the day; he once produced a book on the philosophy of German philologist-turned-philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.
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The city’s oldest market structure still in use, Hollins Market is part of the Baltimore public market system that began in 1763. In 1835, the City granted a petition of piano manufacturer Joseph Newman and “others” to erect a market house at their own expense. Banker George T. Dunbar donated the land which, at that time, was on the western fringe of the city. The doors opened in September of 1836 and the market soon became very successful, but the fragile structure blew down in a windstorm two years later. Newman organized the effort to quickly rebuild and re-open the market by the end of 1839. The market was named for John Smith Hollins (1786-1856), an estate owner in West Baltimore and one-term mayor of the city from 1852 to 1854.
In 1863, the City Council appropriated $23,000 to erect the high-ceilinged Italianate red brick edifice as an addition to the old market house. As this was during the divisive time of the Civil War, the council refused to consider any bid for the market’s construction that did not come from “parties... known to be thoroughly and unconditionally Union Men.”
By 1900, Hollins Market stretched from Poppleton to Carey Streets, with 160 inside and 180 outside stalls. Over the years, an assortment of West Baltimore butchers, various European and Asian immigrants with vendor traditions, and African-American merchants have all sold and purchased meats, farm-fresh produce, baked goods, and home-produced wares. Somewhat smaller today, the traditions and diversity of the market and the quality of goods still holds true. The Barry Levinson film “Avalon” depicts Hollins Market in its heyday.
Hollins Market, at 26 South Arlington Street, is open Tuesday through Thursday 7:00am to 6:00pm, Friday and Saturday from 6:00am to 6:00pm. It is closed Sundays and Mondays.
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“‘Arabbing’ is a term used to describe the activities of a group of small scale entrepreneurs – mostly Black and male – who for more decades than anyone can remember have hired horses and carts to carry a variety of food items to the neighborhoods of Baltimore.” (from a 1994 editorial in the Baltimore Afro‑American)
Just how these horse-powered vendors got the name arabbers (pronounced “AY‑rabber”) is unknown. It may be a derivative from the term “street arabs” or “street urchins” used by Londoners during the mid-1800s to describe homeless children or people who made their living off the street.
Now exclusively African-American, arabbing started in the early 1800s as a mostly white trade. Baltimore had stables on every corner and a steady supply of produce boats pulling up to piers now occupied by the Inner Harbor. Today, this unique slice of history only exists amid the narrow streets of West Baltimore. A trip to our side of town on a summer day reveals a tradition not familiar to most city explorers: the clippity-clop of horses pulling wagons filled with fruits and vegetables and the unmistakable bellow of arabbers hawking their wares. These few surviving arabbers are working reminders of a vanished era of horse-and-wagon commerce dating back to a time when deliveries of wood, coal, ice, milk, food and almost everything else were made by horsecart.
The Arabber Preservation Society (APS) was formed in January 1994. For their website, www.openair.org/alerts/arabber/baltim.html, click here.
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