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Charmed Life

The Home Office

Sam Holden

By Charles Cohen | Posted 4/3/2002

For more than four years now, this column has been used as an excuse to pry into other people's histories. And all this time, City Paper has been sitting on someone else's past.

While CP maintains its forever-young image in these pages, it maintains its offices in a stately and aged brick house on Park Avenue in grand Mount Vernon. With its big windows, high ceilings, elegant banistered staircase, and richly paneled conference room, the three-story mansion is one well-appointed media outlet.

But that air of stately gentility will never fully belong to this alternative weekly. No matter that the hall ceiling has been painted fish-tank green or the mantelpiece in the editor's office has gotten a coat of lavender; this place of business is still someone's childhood home.

I didn't know whose until some weeks back. While interviewing Elizabeth Rumsey Finkle, a politically and socially active Annapolitan, for a story for another publication, I happened to mention that I write for City Paper. "Oh, you mean 812 Park Avenue," Finkle said. "I used to live there."

The woman I had pegged as an Annapolis blue blood was actually the heir of a clan of eccentric, well-to-do Baltimoreans. She regaled me with tales of happy days growing up Mount Vernon, bouncing tennis and lacrosse balls off the back of what is now a newspaper office. She described a life of privilege, with four servants and old-school rules.

Finkle, who lived in the house from her birth in 1938 until 1950, recalled her grandfather, the family patriarch, a stern physician who studied in Germany and operated an eye, ear, nose, and throat practice out of the first floor. She told me about her "Aunt No No," a flapper who'd made the social rounds with Zelda Fitzgerald and Alfred Vanderbilt. And she reminisced about her father, an inventor who devised a plastic duckpin that was rejected by Brunswick because using it would eliminate the clunk-a-de-clunk of the wooden pins when a bowler throws a strike. "When he died, we ended up with the bowling pin," she said.

Momentarily forgetting the story I was working on, I invited Finkle up to visit her childhood home.

A few weeks later, we are standing in 812 Park's third-floor hallway, outside the editorial offices, admiring the building's most spectacular feature, the winding staircase that, from our viewpoint over the railing, offers a deadly-three story drop to the foyer below. From here, Finkle says, she would launch her hair-raising (to me, at least) banister rides.

While children sliding down the banister was tolerated, venturing into her grandfather's office was severely frowned upon. This space, now occupied by CP's advertising sales crew, was then loaded with what the childhood Finkle considered torturous medical machines.

"It was really horrible, but [the patients] were in such pain they didn't care," she says. "They just wanted something to help them."

Such comments are typical of Finkle's tour through her old haunt. Never once does she gush nostalgically, not even when she stops at her own room (where she mentions only that she used to keep a scrapbook about Elizabeth Taylor and had nothing on the walls). Finkle, who is active in historic-preservation efforts in Annapolis, is far more emotional about missing alley houses behind the building, which have given way to a parking lot.

"That whole area really makes me sick," she says. In her day, "it was all townhouses back there, like it is just past Read Street," she says, referring to the quaint villagelike row on Tyson Street just north of CP.

At times, Finkle finds herself searching for details that no longer exist. Gone is the dumbwaiter, and the button imbedded in the dining-room floor that her grandfather used to summon the servants.

Finkle says she was uncomfortable growing up in a home with live-in servants, which led to a socially conscious adulthood. Living in Washington in the '60s, she got involved in the civil-rights movement and rented the basement apartment of her D.C. home to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She later served as assistant director of Anne Arundel County's Department of Social Services and is now a licensed clinical social worker with the YWCA.

"I was very ashamed of having servants and so much opulence when so many people have so little," Finkle says. "Imagine ringing a bell for a tuna-fish sandwich. That was just nuts."

For the most part, the tour triggers more benign memories: of chasing bats that flew in through the skylight; listening to the piano from a house up the block that then served as a Peabody Conservatory dorm; watching Aunt No No run off "to play the ponies." But she turns serious again as she pauses to descend the stairwell (stepping rather than sliding) and mentions her father's death four years ago. Her family had traveled a good deal during World War II, she says, and on his deathbed her father told her why: He was one of the scientists who worked on the atomic bomb. "He was very secretive," she says. "He grew up in a world of secrets, when families had secrets."

For me, Elizabeth Rumsey Finkle's memories give new meaning to working out of 812 Park--the sense that you're in someone else's house. And for someone who had contemplated the building's fine details more than the lives lived there, they offer proof of how easily the past can get lost in the décor.

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