Buildings, like books, tell a city’s story

A veteran journalist and architecture critic makes a case for saving Baltimore's best buildings.


Writers like Dashiell Hammett (who had been a Pinkerton detective in Baltimore) inspired historian and journalist Jim Dilts.

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When I moved to Baltimore from Chicago more years ago than I care to admit, I didn’t know much about the place, so I looked it up in an encyclopedia. (That was then.)

As I recall, I learned that Baltimore was on an arm of the Chesapeake Bay, made steel and was the home of the Johns Hopkins Hospital and H.L. Mencken.

The city actually didn’t sound too interesting, but I needed a job, having been let go from my first one out of college in the advertising and promotion department of a large company.

I didn’t last long in the university position I came here to fill either. I got fired a lot in those days. This wasn’t altogether bad, I realized later. For one thing, it helped me see what I was unsuited for, advertising and academia being two major contenders. Plus, with a family to support, I found it quite bracing.

Newspaper reporting came next and thus began my real education in Baltimore. Being a journalist was the best introduction I could have to my new home. I got to meet most of the players and tried to figure out how things worked.

I still don’t know how they work, but I decided that far from being uninteresting, Baltimore had a colorful and truly Byzantine political culture, more characters per square block than any place I’d ever been outside of New York City, and, oh yes – historic buildings.

All of them good copy.

Newspapermen Who Could Write Like the Wind

I had an epiphany at the newspaper: that it would be a good idea to get out and hustle and do the job right because if I got fired again, it wouldn’t look good on my resume or on the home front. Being of a studious nature, I also spent a lot of time in the newspaper library (the morgue) reading old clips and other materials for background.

I remember pulling down one of Mencken’s “Days” books and encountering Hoggie Unglebower, a Baltimore stable boy, an urban Huck Finn. (“Downfall of a Revolutionary” opens Heathen Days; Mencken considered Mark Twain our greatest novelist.)

I couldn’t put it down until I had read it through. Same with the first chapter of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice.

Here were two Baltimore newspapermen who could write like the wind. Obviously, the place had something.

Did the falcons on Baltimore's Continental Trust Building inspire "Maltese Falcon" author Hammett?  (From

Did the falcons on Baltimore's Continental Trust Building inspire Dashiell Hammett? (From

I subsequently found out that Dashiell Hammett had been a Pinkerton detective in Baltimore. His office was in the Continental Trust building. Hammett’s fictional Continental Detective Agency employed an anonymous investigator known as “the Continental Op.”

The building still stands at Calvert and Baltimore streets with eagle statues over the entrance, although some people view them as falcons (cue to Hammett’s masterpiece, The Maltese Falcon, set in another port city).

Hammett’s literary ancestor was Edgar Allan Poe, who invented the detective story.

As a poet, Poe took his knocks — Emerson called him “the jingle man” — but he was a formidable critic himself. (Poe referred to the Transcendentalists as “frogpondians.”) Baudelaire, France’s greatest poet, was Poe’s early champion and translator.

Here in Baltimore, Poe’s grave and house today attract many foreign and domestic visitors. The Mencken House does also.

Buildings, Like Books, Tell Baltimore’s Story

The city-owned Poe House (open week-ends) and the Mencken House (open occasionally) are not on the list of 15 historic properties that the city is now surveying for possible disposition to new stewards, but they represent the power of historic structures to evoke our collective civic memory and pride.

You can learn about a city from its authors, artists, and musicians, and also from its buildings. Like books, they are tactile objects capable of transporting you, in the sense of inspiring intense emotions.

Architectural historians speak of “reading” a building. Buildings convey their own form of knowledge and their own stories, through interpreters, of the people who designed, built, inhabited, and used them.

The Peale Museum is on the list of 15 buildings. It is the oldest museum building in the United States. Built by Rembrandt Peale, a member of the first family of American artists, it opened it in 1814.

When the British bombarded Fort McHenry in September that year, Rembrandt spent the night in his new building, with his pregnant wife and seven children, hoping it would pass for a residence so the British wouldn’t burn it as they did Washington, D.C.

(We all know what happened then. The next day, after seeing the formidable earthworks, cannon, and militia arrayed at what is now Patterson Park, the British decided that invading Baltimore wasn’t such a jolly good idea after all.)

Opened in 1814 and used as Baltimore's first City Hall, the Peale Museum has been vacant for years.

Opened in 1814 and used as Baltimore's first City Hall, the Peale Museum has been vacant for years. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

The Peale, formerly the city’s municipal museum, has been closed for 15 years. Suggestions for its reuse include lawyers’ offices, a restaurant, or a boutique hotel. We can do better. Baltimore is the only city of its size lacking an institution that tells the story of its people and their greatest accomplishments over the years.

Lack of Money or Lack of Vision?

The mansion at the Crimea, Orianda, is also on the list. One of the sons of Ross Winans, who manufactured locomotives for the Baltimore & Ohio, the nation’s first railroad, had it built in 1857 as a summer home. The son and his brother contracted with the czar to construct and equip the first Russian railroad, from Petersburg to Moscow, hence the name of the estate.

The Outward Bound program uses the mansion and other buildings at Crimea, now a city park, and has worked to maintain them over the years.

Another listed building, the No. 6 Engine House in Oldtown, is a rare surviving volunteer company firehouse in Baltimore. It was built in 1854 by the Independent Fire Company, one of many such volunteer fire companies in the city back then.

They were rowdy outfits that “ran with the machine” and often fought with rivals for the honor of extinguishing a blaze. (The real motive was profit: insurers paid premiums to volunteer companies that put out a fire at one of their insured properties and if a building lacked an insurance company’s fire mark, it was sometimes left to burn.)

No. 6 Engine House in Old Town, a rare volunteer firehouse built in 1854. (Photo credit: Panoramio)

No. 6 Engine House in Old Town, a rare volunteer firehouse built in 1854. (Photo credit: Panoramio)

The firehouse is also architecturally interesting. It represents an early use of structural cast iron. William H. Reasin, one of its architects, was a pioneer in this new building technology that Baltimore helped to develop.

He had previously worked with James Bogardus on Baltimore’s famous Sun Iron Building and he designed the Maryland Institute’s original structure, which had a cast-iron library. But the fire museum in the No. 6 Engine House is open just once a year.

What is its future?

These and Baltimore’s other historic buildings are part of who we are as citizens. The administration claims Baltimore lacks the money to maintain them and therefore seeks new tenants, but money is not the real problem.

What seems to be lacking is energy, invention, and imagination. Certainly the city that sent the British packing, invented the railroad in America and aided in introducing a new commercial building technology can find a way to maintain and celebrate its irreplaceable and priceless physical heritage.

– A Baltimore Sun alumnus, James D. Dilts wrote The Great Road, a history of the B&O Railroad, and co-authored A Guide to Baltimore Architecture with John Dorsey. He is president of Friends of the Peale, a non-profit group seeking to reopen the Peale Museum as a center for Baltimore history and architecture.

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  • JS

     Considering that the Peale Museum was the first building in the US specifically designed to be a museum, yes, I agree that it deserves a resurrection.  The dozen or so landmarks the City may sell, however, is only a fraction of City-owned historic property that lies fallow and deteriorating, a testament to the Department of Planning’s flawed strategies for redevelopment.  Clearly the City does not have the money to maintain these historic properties, but I hope their sale does not amount to a pillaging of our heritage. The City’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP) should take an active–and publicly transparent– role in ensuring that landmarks like the Number 6 Engine House are rehabilitated in a respectful way.

  • Unellu

    Historic preservation in extinction–Baltimore 2012

    He says
    that buildings like books tell a story–
    He is right.

    like the pyramids of Egypt about the Pharoahs
    or the stairs to the stars about the Mayans
    or the Parthenon about the Greeks,
    or about the Romans-the Coliseum.

    architecture is an amalgam of people–
    their muscles in concerted motion–
    converting to force and friction–
    their ideas and their visions–
    of the Earth supporting their creations–
    to be marveled for eons by generations–
    yet to make their appearance–

    even in ruin–
    architecture is an emphatic celebration
    of space vested with purpose–
    of art enhanced–
    by the perceptions– of dreamers
    in three dimensions–

    Yet, during times
    of suffering and recession,
    when the here and now takes precedence–
    over historic preservation–
    when how we came to be as a people–
    planners, builders and craftsmen–
    our energies poured into statements
    of perfect geometric proportions–

    when how we achieved– on sheer cliffs
    hanging over oceans–
    or from boulders balanced by magic–
    or within caves shaped from limestone–
    dwellings, monasteries and temples–
    such marvels– when they take a back seat–

    when there’s no place
    in the heart of the present–
    to be in awe–
    of such gargantuan effort–
    as has shaped our planet– over centuries–
    marking it with splendid structures–
    the result of people chipping–
    on bent knees with chisels and hammers–
    of metals forged and sparks flying–
    of great stones from quarries dug out–
    slate and marble– in tonnage–
    rivaling whole herds of elephants–
    the sweat from their forced labor
    enough to flood mighty rivers–

    when there’s no recognition or respect–
    that they too must have ached for comfort–
    those– now no more– workers
    for rest from the harsh conditions–
    that often drove their ventures–

    some tumbling from heights and dying–
    some maimed–in pain for a lifetime–
    some buried in the substance of their creations–
    whole armies entombed by the process
    of architectural innovations–

    when there’s no place
    in the heart of the present
    for the human toll extracted
    to deck our planet with splendid structures–
    when we reward our ancestors with erasure–
    we too will be toppled–

    our memorials will some day be leveled–
    our gardens will be obliterated–
    our glass towers they will be shattered
    and removed to be recycled–

    As we have chosen to forget
    we too will be forgotten….
    our best efforts swallowed and digested–
    by the amnesia of our descendants….


  • It’s the economy

    Money is the real problem.  The contractors who fix up old buildings are paid with money, not “energy, invention, and imagination”.  The only way to save Baltimore’s wonderful old buildings is to rejuvenate the city’s economy.

  • Unellu

    No, “It’s the economy”,
    The writer is right.  Our monuments fell to pieces during the good times and have continued to fall to pieces due to willful neglect.  It is not as if, when Baltimore’s coffers become full again, our city’s leaders will have the vision or the remembrance to rush out with hands outstretched for our historical heritage.  But you may be right, that the only way to save these monuments is to have the money to pay the contractors and masons. 

    On a positive and pragmatic note historic preservation creates many jobs in construction.  It is a highly specialized sub field of architecture and engineering.  It is a field where historians can find employment and specialists working across the aisle with each other can restore a building to its original appearance and sometimes original purpose. 

    Look at the engine house above–it is a gem and an eye candy.  It looks to me like an impressionist’s concept of a giraffe and against a blue sky it is majestic like no other new building I’ve seen. 

    Unlike the people of our tech era, older generations were adept at making things with their hands.  And they were dedicated to their craft–carpentry, stone masonry–whatever they did, they seem to have done lovingly and it was hard for them.  They did not have the precision machinery we have to today–they did not have the 3 D images that computers project.  They had their imaginations, their hands and their labor. 

    These landmarks, if properly preserved, can become tourist destinations, for history buffs and others.  Old buildings are not clunkers–they can be money makers and admixed with modern architecture, they give a city the quaintness of age.  Like in Rome, the nooks and crannies, the sudden and startling appearance of ruins and the cobble stoned streets–nothing like that for atmosphere.  You walk in a city like that and you feel the continuity to the past and you feel special that you are human.        

  • Sheck61

    What happened to the 2 million $ that was given for the Mencken House? 

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