This is a follow on post to my Top 8 Free and Offbeat Things to Do in Baltimore, but this one is all about offbeat Historic things to see and do in Charm City that are free.
Most people don’t know how much history Baltimore has. From 1830-1850, it was the second-largest city in the U.S., trailing only New York. After Ellis Island, Baltimore’s Locust Point was the nation’s leading point of entry. From this population explosion came a ton of innovation, cultural advancement, and economic dynamism.
1. Mansion Fit for a French Emperor (or His Grand Nephew)
Baltimore has had more than it’s share of brushes with European royalty. Actually, more than brushes. Two wealthy Baltimore women won the hearts of titled Europeans, with history-making consequences. One love story has a happy ending (see next entry); one does not. This entry looks at the latter.
More specifically, it looks at the mansion a descendant built, but first some quick history:
1803 – Napoleon’s younger brother Jerome meets Elizabeth “Betsy” Patterson at a Baltimore ball and marries her soon after, without Napoleon’s permission. She is 18 and daughter of the 2nd richest man in Maryland.
1805 – Betsy gives birth to Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte.
1805 – Napoleon can’t convince Pope Pius VII to annul the marriage, so he does it himself by imperial decree.
1807 – Jerome remarries, to a German princess
Heartbroken, Betsy traveled back and forth between Europe and Baltimore, eventually dying in Baltimore in 1879. Her tomb’s epitaph: “After life’s fitful fever she sleeps well.” (see #4 entry for the cemetery where she rests)
Son Jerome married and had 2 sons. The eldest, Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte II, was a career officer in the French Army. The 2nd, Charles Joseph Bonaparte, lived in Baltimore and had a remarkable career as President Teddy Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Navy, then Attorney General. In 1908, he established what would become the FBI.
Charles lived in mid-town Baltimore, then built Bella Vista, a stately Queen Anne-style mansion with commanding views in rural Glen Arm (near Fork, Md). He disliked technology, so the house was un-electrified and he traveled exclusively by horse-drawn coach until his death in 1921.
Charles was married but childless, so the Harford Road mansion passed to notorious bootleggers Peter and Michael Kelly, then to the Obrecht family. While owned by the Obrechts, it burned to the ground in 1933. Ironically, the fire was caused by retrofitted faulty wiring.
The house was rebuilt of poured concrete. It’s smaller than the original, but still stately. According to real estate sites, it measures 6,517 square feet, with 6 beds and 6 baths.
The 31-acre property was purchased in March 2017 for $661,000. The dilapidated house is now being renovated to serve as Hindu Buddha Mandir, “one of the largest Hindu temples in the U.S.,” according to their website.
It will be interesting to see if the Nepalese owners can acquire a special exception to operate the religious center on rural land. Their website claim that the location “is widely known for welcoming hundreds of visitors every day” probably won’t help their cause, although that might just be filler text, as the site is obviously a work in progress.
It’s not currently open for tours, but you might be able to access the drive, which terminates in a small rotary. If questioned, bow your head and press your hands together and deliver your most serene “Namaste.” Then serenely depress the accelerator and move right along.
Before departing, be sure to admire an adjacent carriage house (pictured, in 2016) which is the size of a Nebraska barn. It’s an original outbuilding, untouched by the fire. It’s in poor shape, but it still has a sturdy slate roof and stone floor.
2. A Sacrificial Love Story
Bessie Wallis Warfield, born in 1896, was a Baltimore socialite who fell in love with King Edward VIII, heir to the British throne. As she was twice-married, Edward had to abdicate the throne in 1936 to marry her. They lived the rest of their lives together.
A remarkable story of love and devotion, especially considering her history of affairs and broken relationships.
Bessie had a difficult start; she lost her father at an early age. Initially, she and her mother relied on Bessie’s uncle Solomon Warfield, living with him on East Preston Street in Baltimore. When she was 12, the two of them moved nearby to 212 East Biddle Street, where her mother remarried.
It’s here, just up the street, where a private citizen has opened the Adele Corner House Duchess of Windsor Museum.
It houses a collection of ephemera from the time of Edward’s abdication in 1936 to the Duchess’s death in 1972. It includes items the Duke and Duchess owned, including coronation souvenirs, and replica jewelry.
The museum does not keep public hours; tours are by appointment only. I can’t personally vouch for this attraction, having not visited, although it’s on my list.
If you’re hungry for additional Duchess of Windsor Baltimore history, visit Oldfields School (above), where Uncle Warfield sent Bessie from 1912 to 1914. The girls school was and is the most expensive private school in the Baltimore area ($31,000 in 2015-16). I have visited this site (Pippa plays badminton there) and the bucolic campus is worth a drive through.
3. Tell-Tale Tour
Lots of places claim Edgar Allan Poe because he was unstable and moved regularly. He was born in Boston, was quickly orphaned and fostered in Richmond, moved around in the military before he was court-martialed, then lived in Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore, and Richmond again.
Yes, but only Baltimore can claim his death, a mysterious one at that. Fitting for a writer who specialized in the macabre.
My Baltimore Poe Tour has three stops:
Stop #1: Edgar Allan Poe House.
Nearly demolished in the push to build Poe Homes in 1940 (Baltimore’s oldest public housing development), this house was Poe’s home for a few years in the 1830s when he lived with his aunt and other family members. It’s not the best part of town, but I wouldn’t hesitate to make a daylight visit. The modest exterior is a testament to the financial struggles that Poe and his family endured. There is a fee to enter.
Note: During a renovation in 1979, workers found skeletal remains under the floorboards; alas, they were determined to be animal bones.
Stop #2: The Horse You Came in on Saloon.
This Fells Point bar is reportedly where the 40-year-old poet quaffed his last drink before taking to the streets on the night of October 3, 1849. There he was found, wandering and delirious, and taken to the Washington Medical College, where he died four days later. A sign designating the spot as “Poe’s Last Stop” hangs above the seating area. Staff say that the benign ghost of Poe is known to visit, and they’ll sometimes leave a glass of whiskey out for him at closing time.
Stop #3: Westminster Hall and Burying Ground.
Poe was originally interred in an unmarked grave that became overgrown with weeds. Eventually, fundraising was undertaken (which included collecting pennies from Baltimore schoolchildren), and a new monument was dedicated in 1875. Located downtown, the small burying ground is home to an 80″ tall monument that features a bas-relief bronze bust of Poe. It is free and open to the public 8 AM to dusk.
For 70-some years, an anonymous ‘Poe Toaster’ visited his grave on his birthday, leaving a bottle of cognac and 3 red roses. Recently, it’s believed that the original toaster passed away, so the Maryland Historical Society selected a new ‘anonymous’ Toaster to continue the tradition.
4. VIP Cemetery
Speaking of eternal rest, the sprawling GreenMount Cemetery is not to be missed. It’s the final resting place of 8 Maryland governors, 7 Baltimore mayors, 17 Civil War generals, and these notable individuals:
John Wilkes Booth – A native of Bel Air, Maryland, he rests near two Lincoln assassination co-conspirators.
J. Walter Lord – Author of best-selling books, including A Night to Remember (Titantic) and The Miracle of Dunkirk. Dying in 2002, his grave is marked by a marble bench listing the books he authored.
William & Henry Walters – Father and son collected 22,000 works of art, which Henry used to found the Walters Art Museum.
Allen Dulles – Brother of John Foster Dulles, was 3rd CIA Director. Served for 9 years under Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy.
Alexander Brown – Founded the first investment bank in the U.S. in 1800 in Baltimore. Alex. Brown & Sons organized the first IPO in the U.S. in 1808.
Annie Armstrong – A Baptist woman of deep faith, she developed a heart for missions, working with Indians, immigrants, minorities, and children. In 1888, she lead the creation of the Woman’s Missionary Union.
Betsy Patterson Bonaparte – Short-lived sister-in-law of Napoleon, who annuled the marriage. See #1 entry.
John Gresham Machen – A Presbyterian who battled liberalism at Princeton Seminary, eventually leaving and founding Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.
John Eckart, Jr. – Known as “The Amazing Half-Boy” and “King of the Freaks,” Johnny Eck was born without the lower half of his torso, yet became a famous sideshow performer, actor, artist, musician, photographer, and illusionist. Leonardo DiCaprio is said to be developing a film based on his remarkable life.
Johns Hopkins – You guessed it.
Enoch Pratt – See next entry.
Baltimore boasts two spectacular libraries that don’t get half as much attention as your smartphone.
The Enoch Pratt Free Library Central Branch is the flagship of a city-wide system that has 22 branches. With huge picture windows on the exterior and massive rectangular columns and soaring ceilings inside, the building is a testament to the vaulted position that reading once held in the U.S.
Another testament: It’s construction began in 1931 at the height of the Depression, and finished on time in 1933.
It replaced the original central building that resulted from merchant and financier Enoch Pratt’s $1.06M donation to the city in 1882. He designated the gift for the purpose of establishing a library that “shall be for all, rich and poor without distinction of race or color, who, when properly accredited, can take out the books if they will handle them carefully and return them.”
It’s in the middle of a $115M renovation that will finish in 2019.
Head north and east a quarter mile and you’ll find a smaller, yet even more visually stunning temple of books – the George Peabody Library, which is now part of Johns Hopkins University.
Completed in 1878, the gorgeous neo-Greco interior features an atrium with a black and white marble floor, a latticed glass skylight, and five floors of cast-iron balconies with tightly-packed book stacks.
When I visited, I remember looking up at the dream-like surroundings and experiencing visual sensory overload. I closed my eyes and thanked God for the beauty of his creation, including the man-made.
6. 1st Washington Monument
The recently-restored Washington Monument is in the center of Mt. Vernon Square, a literal stone’s throw from the Peabody Library. It was the nation’s first big public memorial to George Washington, opening in 1829, or 59 years before its larger cousin in Washington, D.C. Both were designed by American architect Robert Mills.
Related: What Baltimore’s Removal of Confederate Statues Reveals
You can pay $6 ($4 for kids) to climb the 227 steps to the top, but that would remove it from this Free list. Besides, it’s not worth it. The ground floor gallery and digital touchscreen exhibits are already free, and if you do climb, you aren’t allowed access to the upper balcony for safety reasons.
While there, be sure to do a turn around Mt. Vernon. With the cobblestone streets and fountains and statuary, you’ll swear that you’re in the Old Country, not Baltimore.
7. America’s First Cathedral
Directly across the street from the Enoch Pratt Central Branch (see #5 Biblio-Heaven section) is the Baltimore Basilica or formally this mouthful: ‘Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.’
Built from 1806-1821, it was the first Catholic cathedral constructed in the United States after the adoption of the Constitution and it quickly became a symbol of the country’s newfound religious freedom. It was designed in the neoclassical style by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, father of American architecture, and Thomas Jefferson’s Architect of the Capitol.
The Basilica is a magnet for Catholic bigwigs: Pope John Paul II visited in 1995 and Mother Teresa in 1996.
A 3-year, $34 million restoration project was completed in 2006, to restore the cathedral to Latrobe’s original intent. The work included a natural brightening of the interior; 24 skylights in the main dome were re-opened, and the stained glass windows (installed in the 1940s) were given to a parish in Clarksville, Maryland and replaced with clear glass windows.
Sunday is a good time for a visit. The Basilica is open 7 am until the conclusion of the 4:30 pm Mass. Other Masses are at 8 am and 10:45 am. Free parking in the Franklin Street garage is available only on Sunday mornings from 7:30 am until Noon.
8. Not the World’s Biggest Smokestack
I’m a big Baltimore booster, but even I didn’t know the history of the remarkable Phoenix Shot Tower until we visited.
Built in 1828, it was the tallest building in the U.S. for 18 years, until Trinity Church (where Alexander and Eliza Hamilton are buried) was erected on Wall Street in Manhattan.
It is 215′ tall and contains an estimated 1.1 million bricks. Its walls are 4.5′ thick (!) from the bottom to about 50′ up, then narrow until reaching a thickness of 21″ at the top.
The tower’s design facilitated the making of shot – used for small game hunting – by pouring molten lead through colanders at the top. As it spun and cooled in the air the lead became spherical and smooth. The shot was collected in a large water barrel at the tower’s base, then sorted by size and bagged for distribution.
In 1892, new methods of shot production made the tower obsolete and it closed its doors.
When the Union Oil Company planned to tear it down and put a gas station in its place in 1921, a public outcry lead to its preservation.
Near Little Italy, the tower is open for Free drop-in visits 10-12 Saturdays and Sundays through November. Unfortunately, you can’t climb the tower. Exhibits include a sound and light show and video on the production of shot.
Grant P. says
While the Washington Monument in Baltimore broke ground earlier, the first big public monument dedicated to George Washington was completed in 1827 and resides on South Mountain on Maryland’s portion of the Appalachian Trail. It’s also a free visit with an incredible view of Western Maryland. Take your jacket, it’s breezy this time of year.
Thanks for some fascinating history lessons.
Good to know, thanks for the history!