Mount Vernon: Exploring Baltimore’s Neighborhoods

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Text by Donna M. Owens, For The Baltimore Sun

When Matthew Muir arrived in Baltimore to attend college, the native New Yorker lived in a few neighborhoods while seeking a community that best suited his taste for urban living.

He landed in Mount Vernon three years ago, and it felt like home.

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“Having grown up in New York, I’m used to walking out my door and seeing shops, a pizza place, a bar or a restaurant with Indian food — all in the same neighborhood,” said Muir, a business consultant.

“We have that here. It feels very genuine. And there’s such a variety of people. It’s incredibly diverse.”

He’s among the residents, who range from millennials to empty-nesters, who believe Mount Vernon embodies city living at its finest.

A National Historic Landmark district with a towering landmark of its own, Baltimore’s Washington Monument, the neighborhood melds a rich history with contemporary cultural, culinary, and arts/entertainment options.

There are varying boundary definitions for Mount Vernon , depending upon whom you ask.

The Mount Vernon-Belvedere Association cites the borders as Interstate 83 to the east and north, Howard Street to the west. and Mulberry Street to the south. The city’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation draws a slightly different boundary, putting the southern limit at Hamilton Street and the western at Eutaw Street. The Midtown Community Benefits District — a citizen-run neighborhood improvement group that represents Bolton Hill, Charles North, Madison Park and Mount Vernon-Belvedere —uses yet another boundary. Technically, Mount Vernon and Midtown-Belvedere are two separate areas, but they’re sometimes considered one neighborhood and simply referred to as Mount Vernon.

Perhaps what distinguishes Mount Vernon more than its ZIP codes (typically 21201 and 21202) and borders are its residential offerings, which run from Victorian-era rowhouses and carriage houses to condos and apartments tucked inside rowhouses or high-rises.

“Mount Vernon has fabulous architecture,” said Alyssia K. Essig, a real estate broker and president-elect of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors. “You’ll find big old brownstones that some people think only exist in New York or Boston. There are historic details like huge ceilings and handcarved staircases. They’re here in one compact area.”

It’s not uncommon to find houses that date back a century or even two. Mount Vernon boasts myriad examples of period architecture: Federal, Greek Revival, Italianate, Gothic Revival, Second Empire, Queen Anne, Romanesque, Chateau, Renaissance Revival, Beaux-Arts and Classical Revival.

Besides those styles, the neighborhood also has some midcentury modern and a few ultra-modern glass, steel and concrete high rises.

“Most buildings in Mount Vernon were built in the 19th century during Baltimore’s economic heyday. Our formal `period of significance’ ranges from the late 1700s to 1945,” said Steve Shen, a local homeowner and volunteer with the Mount Vernon-Belvedere Association, where he chairs its Architectural Review Committee.

The cornerstone of the Washington Monument was laid in 1815 on rural land donated by the family of John Eager Howard, a Revolutionary hero.

Subsequently, the area near the monument was developed and occupied by some of the city’s wealthiest and most influential families.

The National Park Service notes: “Mount Vernon Place is one of the first examples in the United States of deliberate city planning to create a dramatic setting for an existing monument.”

Essig said the community has “an affordability factor” that stacks up well compared to other city neighborhoods. The median price for a home in the area last year was $199,000

“You can find an $80,000 condo or a single family home that costs $1.5 million. And everything in between,” she said.

The neighborhood’s ambience is a big draw, Essig said.

One can check out hip eateries such as Dooby’s for Korean-inspired fare or the newly restored restaurant, The Elephant, for Sunday brunch in an elegant setting.

Center Stage, the Walters Art Museum, the Maryland Historical Society, the Peabody Institute and the central Enoch Pratt Free Library are among the community’s longstanding cultural institutions.

There are coffee shops, ample bars, and clubs with live music and dancing.

To appeal to families, there’s a children’s park (801 North Calvert Street) and for pet lovers, a dog park (600 North Howard Street). The Charm City Circulator routes pass through, as do numerous MTA bus lines.

Annie Milli, marketing director for Live Baltimore, an independent nonprofit that promotes the benefits of city living, notes that Mount Vernon is “well known” among the city’s 200-plus neighborhoods.

It is so well known that when the group holds its “Buying into Baltimore” trolley tour May 13, it will bypass Mount Vernon — not as a slight, but to market other neighborhoods more aggressively.

“Our bus tours encourage participants to consider lesser-known, but equally outstanding parts of the city,” she said. Still, Milli said, Mount Vernon is one of several city neighborhoods that are helping the “continuing strength of Baltimore’s housing market.”

Essig agreed. In the city, “we do not have a lot of supply, we do have demand. In neighborhoods like Mount Vernon, when a seller walks into a house that’s been staged great and prepped for sale, if the price is right, they buy it.”

In 1964, the community became Baltimore’s first historic district. The neighborhood’s National Historic Landmark designation came in 1971.

While landmark status is typically awarded to a particularly important, singular structure such as the White House, in the case of Mount Vernon, it’s a four-block area that includes and surrounds the monument.

Despite all its history, however, Mount Vernon isn’t stuck in the past.

According to city permit records and other sources, there are currently construction projects at 500 Park Ave., 20 E. Franklin St., and 824 N. Calvert St. Combined, those projects will bring more than 200 new apartments to the neighborhood.

There have also been new-construction projects in recent years that include 1209 N. Charles St. (condos and retail), plus adaptive reuse projects such as 520 Park Ave. (warehouse to apartments) and 831 N. Calvert St., a former firehouse that was turned into a craft brewery and restaurant.

Moreover, Mount Vernon has welcomed new or renovated hotels in recent years. They include The Ivy, a luxury property on East Biddle Street; the Indigo Hotel on West Franklin Street; and the forthcoming Hotel Revival on Cathedral Street.

More projects are in the planning stages, but Shen stressed that it’s all carefully considered.

While there are no homeowner covenants, he said, all exterior work, including new construction, is governed by the city Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation’s guidelines. Various types of authorization are required by the city before building permits are issued. More recently (from 2011-2014), the association worked with the city to draft a 140-page Mount Vernon Master Plan, which outlined its vision for the next decade or two.

“We work very hard every day to help homeowners and developers maintain the highest design and preservation standards, which is often what first attracted them to the neighborhood in the first place,” he said.

Muir, the New York transplant, agreed.

“We have this great mix of history, green spaces and civic involvement,” said Muir, who is now the Mount Vernon-Belvedere Association’s vice president. Community events include tree plantings and cleanups. “And afterwards, you can do a bar crawl,” he said. “That’s my kind of perfect neighborhood.”

This is part of an ongoing series from The Baltimore Sun about the history, culture, and future of Baltimore’s neighborhoods. Have a suggestion for what neighborhood to explore next? Let us know.