The Sunday porch: Druid Hill Park

The Sunday porch/enclos*ure: Mansion House, Druid Hill Park, about 1906, Library of CongressThe Mansion House at Druid Hill Park, Baltimore, Md., between¹1900 and 1910, by Detroit Publishing Co., via Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Somewhere underneath that 1863 Italianate porch and tower is a respectable 1801 Federal house, similar to Homewood House at John Hopkins University, according to Druid Hill Park: The Heart of Historic Baltimore.

It was built by landowner Nicholas Rogers as a summer house for his family, and it later became their primary residence.  In 1860, his grandson sold the property to the city — which soon began turning it into a landscaped park.²

A closer look.
A closer look.  There’s a round fountain on the grassy area in front of the steps.

The new park’s (19-year-old) architect, George A. Frederick, added the open 20′-wide porch to all four sides of the mansion, and it was re-opened as a public pavilion, with refreshments sold in the basement.  From the new tower, visitors could view the city. After 1876, a “zoological collection” could also be seen near the house.

In 1935, the porch was enclosed with large windows, and a Milk Bar and doughnut-making machine were installed.  The Mansion House was advertised as “every man’s³ country club in the heart of Baltimore.”

In the 1940s, the building became a day school. Then, from the mid 1950s to 1978, exotic birds were displayed on the porch.  In 1978, the house was renovated to hold the administration offices of The Maryland Zoo.

From the 1860s until his retirement in 1926, shepherd George Standish McCleary, cared for the park's grass-cutting herd of Southdown sheep. He was assisted by three Scotch collies.
From about 1870 until his retirement in 1926, shepherd George Standish McCleary, cared for the park’s grass-cutting herd of Southdown sheep. He was assisted by three Scotch collies.

It so happens that I spent quite a bit of time in this house during the summer of 1979, when I was a student at Goucher College.  I had an internship with the zoo’s Education Department.

Very newly renovated, the building was fresh, light, and airy, and almost empty. I can’t remember any other people in it:  just the Education Director, his assistant, and me — perching, as is the usual situation for an intern, at the corner of the assistant’s desk.

I spent most of my time there working on the opening of a rather short-lived Insect Zoo ( possibly an idea ahead of its time).  I learned to write exhibit labels, which had to be very brief and at the level of a 4th grade reader.  This is actually quite difficult to do and was very good for me — I had to figure out what was really important or interesting about the animal or bug and then state it as simply as possible;  no filler or showing off allowed.

A large part of the 745-acre park is forested, and one day the three of us went off to poke around the woods not too far from the house.  I remember seeing old steps, discarded garden ornaments, and broken statuary — or maybe I only think I remember such a romantic thing.

The Maryland Zoo (formerly The Baltimore Zoo) is the third oldest zoo in the U.S.
The Maryland Zoo (formerly The Baltimore Zoo) is the third oldest zoo in the U.S.

Today, the building is still used for the zoo’s administrative office, and the porch can be rented for private events, such as weddings.  The interior is very pretty in “buttery yellow,” with white trim, gold detailing, and rows of chandeliers.

ADDENDUM:  A few months after this was posted, I received a email from a retired city employee confirming that the woods did contain a collection of old stone work, salvaged from houses that had been torn down.

I went by the Druid stone
That broods in the garden white and lone,
And I stopped and looked at the shifting shadows
That at some moments fall thereon
From the tree hard by with a rhythmic swing,
And they shaped in my imagining
To the shade that a well-known head and shoulders
Threw there when she was gardening. . . .

— Thomas Hardy, from “The Shadow on the Stone


¹The two other photos are c. 1906, by Detroit Publishing Co., via Library of Congress.

²It quickly sold off the Rogers’s grove of 40,000 pear trees.

³At that time, every white man’s, I suspect.  Although African-Americans used many parts of the park from its beginning, some areas were “whites only.”  The swimming pool and tennis courts were not integrated until 1956.

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