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Charmed Life

Off the Wall

Christopher Myers

By Tom Chalkley | Posted 1/1/2003

Nostalgia isn't what it used to be. The way we look at the past depends, inevitably, on what our present is like. Do we see ourselves as the standard-bearers of progress, or as keepers of the flame? Do we chuckle at those quaint innocents who thought cars or home computers would never catch on? Or do we grumble about how they just don't make 'em like they used to back in the good old days, the glory days, the golden age . . . etc.? Whether we look back with reverence or amusement depends on our own self-confidence, or our trajectory on the roller coaster of fortune.

I get to musing about such topics--time, history, the past--around the end of every year. This December, what got me started was a set of murals in the downtown Radisson Hotel, formerly known as the Lord Baltimore Hotel. The murals, surrounding the hotel's Calvert Ballroom on the second floor, depict the history and development of the city, beginning with the first cluster of houses built on the Patapsco and progressing through the 19th century. The paintings are tinted a warm, yellow parchment color to give them that old-time, aged feeling.

Look closer and you may notice that some of that yellowish tint is not by design. It's due to actual aging. The murals are nearly 60 years old (they were painted in 1944) so what they represent is our past looking at our more distant past. According to the hotel's catering director, Rick Goodwin, the pictures were the work of John and Mabel Giorgi, whose best-known murals are at Villa Pace, the Greenspring Valley estate of opera legend Rosa Ponselle. By 1961 or so, the Lord Baltimore murals were considered dated, old-fashioned, or ugly so they were hidden under then-stylish wood paneling. When paneling, in turn, became less-than-fashionable, hotel management had it stripped away, and the old murals were rediscovered. Sadly, one painting depicting the great Baltimore fire of 1904 was lost to demolition.

What really grabbed me about the Lord Baltimore's murals was their similarity to the wall paintings in a somewhat more august dining hall, the John Eager Howard Room at the Belvedere Condominiums--formerly the Belvedere Hotel, which turned 99 years old last month. The Howard Room's illuminations are considerably finer than those at the Radisson, but they are much in the same vein: a set of golden-tinted panoramas of Baltimore as it had been a century or so before. Through the years, I'd glanced at them over the shoulders of party goers at various events held at the Belvedere, but I never got a good look at them until I decided to shuttle between the Belvedere and the Radisson a few days before Christmas.

According to The Belvedere and the Man Who Saved It, by Kristin Helberg, the Howard Room's muralist was a young art school graduate named Verna Rogers (later Verna Rogers-Napier). She was hired by manager John Folger in 1935, when the Depression-wracked hotel was in receivership. It was Rogers' first mural commission. I couldn't find her signature; instead, the north wall bears a couple of scrawled names that appear to be A. Paul Somebody and Aristotle Something, presumably the artists who carried out a restoration of the hotel in 1976.

The staff at Truffles Restaurant, which now owns the Howard Room, couldn't offer much information, but they did point out that the paintings are numbered, and that one of them--to the left as you enter the dining room--depicts a view of Baltimore as it may have appeared from Gen. John Eager Howard's own backyard. The old general, for whom both Eager and Howard streets are named, lived in a manse called Belvidere (his spelling) on the east side of Mount Vernon. The artist, referring to old prints, painted the rocky bluffs that used to overlook the Jones Falls above what is now St. Paul Place (the steep slope of Saratoga Street is the most vivid reminder of those long-demolished cliffs). Another view shows the inner harbor from about where Rash Field is today. A particularly spiffy touch in the Howard Room's murals is the way the fluffy clouds above the cityscape rise up the walls, yielding to the gold-painted paneling.

Both sets of murals are worth a visit. And if you go to the Belvedere, don't be thrown off, as I once was, by the very fine portrait of a pig that hangs over the Howard Room's sculpted fireplace. It's about 12 years old, and was put up by the Truffles management to replace a portrait of Gen. Howard that now hangs at the Hampton Mansion in Towson.

But back to my original thesis: In 1936, despite the Depression, some folks apparently had enough money to dine in high style, and the management of the Belvedere saw fit to impress them with images of their municipal legacy. I can't help but wonder how much Rogers-Napier was paid for her considerable labors, but I would bet that she leapt at the commission regardless of the fee. Thousands of artists in those days were grateful to be working for the Work Projects Administration, daubing the walls of post offices. Patriotic and historic themes with a populist slant were the norm with the WPA, possibly because the Roosevelt administration was trying to pump up the nation's self-esteem. A similar civic sentiment might have motivated the Belvedere management to commission its paintings, although no hint of social realism (as is present in many WPA works) crept into the Howard Room murals: The landscape is populated by white gentlemen and ladies. In 1944, when the Lord Baltimore's paintings went up, America was at war, still in patriotic mode, and still racially exclusionary.

Subsequent eras have worked their own revisions on history--or, as in the 1960s, preferred to cover their walls with cool, emotionless paneling or non-figurative art. Thinking over the historical and quasi-historical murals of the last few decades, I come up with nothing quite like the proud panoramas of Baltimore's classic hotels. The city's struggle for self-esteem may have been what prompted hoteliers of the 1930s and '40s to commission these romanticized images of old Baltimore. But the city still struggles for self-esteem, and we're still steeped in nostalgia. Judging from the artwork that adorns our public places, perhaps our vision is less collective than it once was.

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