Walking down the cobblestone sidewalks, skirted by rows of elegant brownstones, ornamental wrought-iron gates and manicured greenery, it’s impossible not to be enamored with the timelessness and quirkiness of downtown Baltimore‘s Mount Vernon neighborhood. Between the architecture, marble and monuments, you might think you’ve been transported to turn-of-the-century Europe. But behind the conventional façade, a lively eccentricity radiates from nearby Johns Hopkins, and it’s anything but old-fashioned. In fact, this neighborhood has always been a forward-thinking place, defined early on by a dynamic network of social clubs. We’re talking about the city’s movers and shakers — the bankers, presidents, preservationists — and they gathered often in the name of culture, cocktails and creativity.
You could say it all began with George Peabody’s institute, which ignited the cultural movement of 19th-century Baltimore. Housing over 300,000 volumes, it’s easy to see how the “Cathedral of Books” was the catalyst for dozens of cultural clubs that soon shaped the community. Modern scholars stood on the checkerboard marble floor in awe, staring up at six stories of hardback knowledge wrapped in intricate ironwork. Often times, club members were so inspired by the Peabody’s striking aesthetic that they hired many of the same craftsmen to design their own gathering places just steps away from the institute.
Hotel Indigo Baltimore Downtown, too, is inspired by the neighborhood’s art and high design. Literary-themed murals in each guest room incorporate nods to Baltimore’s literati, and the lobby library houses classics from local authors including Edgar Allan Poe. The hotel also recalls the opulent drawing rooms of the stately 19th-century homes that hosted the club craze sweeping through Mount Vernon. Whether you were interested in German lore, literature or laying bricks, there was a club for it. At one point The New York Times declared, “Baltimore has club fever!” From five-course holiday feasts to festive performances by the Vagabond Players theatre group, the great windows of the many clubs offered glimpses for passersby, as they still do.
One group enjoyed attention way more than others. Easily the most colorful of the bunch, the Charcoal Club was founded with an independent streak on the fringe of conservative culture by artists who were fond of drawing from live models, as they did in Paris. This club particularly enjoyed practical jokes, poker nights and feisty battles with the Baltimore Museum of Art. They went so far as to invent an artist, I.L. Glutz, who, like today’s Banksy, was never seen, but whose paintings were discovered mysteriously several times a year, usually in alleys or attics around town. A slightly twisted love of art brought them together, and their individuality set them apart.
It’s with today’s generation of social renegades that the essence and energy of Mount Vernon’s club culture lives on. Even though time seems to stand still in the unmovable bricks and cobblestones, these streets were paved with the intention of leading the way for those who live by their own rules. They are the new class of creatives, undeterred by those monumental shoes to fill and determined to do things their way. From coffee curators to brewers, musicians to artists, Mount Vernon is still home to downtown’s innovators.