[Kim Hairston, The Baltimore Sun]
Earlier this year the city of Baltimore listed numerous vacant properties for sale, including a structure in West Baltimore that has been on the preservation community’s worry list for years. The Upton Mansion, at 811 W. Lanvale St., is a grand house that deserves better. Other grand houses such as Homewood, Mount Clare and Clifton are well known and respected. Upton is unknown.
This 1838 Greek Revival gem ought to be someone’s palace. I walked through its parlors and bedrooms 19 years ago when it functioned as a public school administration building. I viewed it from the sidewalk this week and scarcely recognized it. There’s a hole in the roof, and the little campus where the house stands is overgrown with trees and weedy shrubs. You almost have to know about Upton’s existence to spot it.
Upton has a curious history. When radio arrived in Baltimore in the 1920s, it became the WCAO-AM studio, where broadcasts continued until 1947. Then came the Baltimore Institute for Musical Arts, a private school for African-American students. In 1954, the city school system acquired Upton and staffed it with teachers who educated sick and home-bound students by phone.
In 2006, Upton became vacant property. Then the vandals and metal thieves moved in and stripped the pipes and made off with an old furnace. It’s practically a death sentence to allow a home to sit unattended for eight years.
Upton’s official birth date is 1838, when Baltimore was a rich city with a swelling population. Edward Ireland, a man from Britain with ties to Barbados, constructed a residence here. He was followed by David Stewart, who purchased the property in 1838, did a tear-down and most likely hired architect Robert Carey Long Jr. What emerged on this little hill overlooking the harbor was the Upton of Greek Revival dreams. It was a pedigreed country house with excellent plaster work, iron balconies and window hoods, mantels and cornices.
Among those who hope that Upton may get a second chance — and be sold to someone who would reclaim it — is Baltimore architect David Gleason, whose office on Eutaw Street is not so far from Upton.
“The house is a free-standing structure, a novelty in rowhouse Baltimore,” Gleason told me. “It is the last in the early 19th-century tradition of country villas built by the wealthy to escape the noise and heat of Baltimore City. Upton was meant to be a gentleman’s estate, close to the city, but still rural in nature. The house itself is a landmark example of the Greek Revival style. Its interior plan has large windows to take advantage of the views south toward the harbor.”
He also recalled visiting Upton years ago. “It stands as a wonderful piece of Baltimore’s great architectural history that could and should be adapted to a new usage,” he said. “The rooms are spacious and filled with light. It could be rehabilitated as a great piece of architecture that captures its past and blends it with the present in a unique and exciting way.”
As I stood on Lanvale Street this week, I looked eastward toward Pennsylvania Avenue and some majestic landmarks in the distance: Bethel AME Church and the former Oheb Shalom Temple, now the Prince Hall Masonic lodge. What is a city without compelling works of architecture?
I thought that, on balance, Baltimore has had a good record of refurbishing daunting preservation issues. I recalled that cold winter day when the doors of the Hippodrome Theater opened after years of sitting vacant. As initially discouraged as I was outside the padlocked fence at Upton this week, I considered that neighborhoods such as Otterbein and Barre Circle were once in the same condition as Upton.
Over the summer, the city’s housing officials showed the old mansion to potential buyers. Proposals for it are due by Sept. 15.