The glittery, rejuvenated Baltimore harbor is the city’s current showpiece, attracting visitors to its shops, museums and water views.
But on my most recent visit to Charm City, I decided to revisit one of Baltimore’s most august neighborhoods: Mount Vernon, whose gracious stone townhomes and elegant squares have changed little in the past century.
Perched on a rise above the downtown bustle, tranquil Mount Vernon is a National Historic Landmark District. It’s a place to take in culture, explore history or simply while away an afternoon in the parks. And while synagogues and Jewish institutions are centered elsewhere, I discovered that Mount Vernon offers more than its share of Jewish cultural life.
With my friend Rachel, a professor at nearby Morgan State University, I strolled up the neighborhood’s Charles Street, past a cluster of cafés. The sidewalks were nearly empty; school was not yet back in session, and you really felt an absence in this student-centric neighborhood, where the bead shops, pizzerias and ethnic eateries are targeted at the young crowd. (Besides the Peabody Institute, a 150-year-old music conservatory in the heart of Mount Vernon, numerous other schools have campuses nearby, including Johns Hopkins University, the University of Maryland and the University of Baltimore.)
Was that the Parthenon off to our left? The White House? No, the imposing classical structure turned out to be the Baltimore Basilica, a national historic landmark and the seat of Catholicism in the state named for a very famous Jewish mother. The gleaming white façade was restored just a few years ago, and the domed interior hosts lunchtime concerts by local classical musicians.
Next up was the Walters Art Museum, which I was delighted to discover offers free admission. (The downtown bus service, Charm City Circulator, is also free — perks that amaze New Yorkers.) Despite the price, we saw relatively few patrons in several floors of exhibits that comprise art of the ancient world, decorative ceramics, 19th-century Orientalism and medieval European triptychs — to name just a few highlights of this eclectic collection.
I was particularly intrigued by a series of artifacts with Jewish symbols from the classical era; they showed how Judaic culture was integrated into a religiously fluid society. As I moved through period-themed rooms chronologically, this spiritual syncretism gave way to sternly Catholic art depicting a burgeoning faith with no room for dissidence. The Walters may not be comprehensive by any means — its 19th-century wing has little of Impressionism, that era’s dominant movement — but at its best, the collection conveys revealing snapshots of society at various points in history.
Back out in the sunshine, we wandered up to Washington Place, which boasts America’s first architectural monument dedicated to George Washington.
Having heard all my life about the Peabody Institute, which is affiliated with Johns Hopkins, I couldn’t resist the temptation to stroll inside — though without an ID, I wasn’t sure how much I’d be able to see.
Happily, the answer was quite a bit. A guard informed me I could tour the exhibition room just off the lobby and the library beyond. The exhibition, a display of manuscripts and commentary on the American novelist Stephen Crane, was diverting enough. But when I stepped through a doorway into the vast, ornate George Peabody Library, I had to catch my breath.
With its soaring six-story ceiling, girded by fluted white columns and lined floor to ceiling with balconies full of leather-bound volumes, the room resembles a Soho façade crossed with a Greek temple. Gold-gilt flourishes and pearly milgrain railings grace each level; the vast central reading space, largely deserted in summer, is sometimes used for formal events. I’ve seen more than my share of college libraries, and this one is by the far the most memorable.
I encountered a similar elegance at the neoclassical Miriam A. Friedberg Concert Hall, one of America’s earliest recital halls. Jewish philanthropist and Hopkins grad Sidney Friedberg financed a renovation of the hall, naming it for his wife, a onetime Peabody student and passionate promoter of the arts who organized public music programs throughout Baltimore.
Today, you can step inside the historic structure at One East Mount Vernon Place to catch the Sylvia Adalman Chamber series — modestly priced concerts by top-notch artists, many Jewish, in a setting at once grand and intimate.
The rich spectrum of Jewish music, both sacred and secular, is a focus of many programs at Peabody. It was also represented in a summer-afternoon concert I saw in a nearby park that day, a performance of Sephardic chamber pieces.
The pretty parks around Washington Place — tidy green lawns, with walking paths, benches and Art Nouveau fountains — are popular at every hour. The day I visited, Rachel had been to one at dawn for a plein-air yoga class; as the day waned, dog walkers emerged to trot around the rose gardens, while neighbors stopped to chat.
It was a very genteel afternoon, soaked in the atmosphere of 19th-century America and the culture of Baltimore.