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Charmed Life

High Ground, Low Profile

Christopher Myers

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 4/25/2001

A dandelion-sprinkled hill rises in poverty-scarred Upton--a green anomaly amid the boarded-up rowhouses that mark this woeful west-side neighborhood. A short, curving drive leads you up the hill--and back in time. At its crest sits Upton, a stately, three-story Greek Revival house dating to 1839, long before its namesake neighborhood existed. Through the decades its stout walls have echoed with the sounds of high-society dinner parties, the cross-talk comedy of Burns and Allen, and the sonic splendor of young musicians. Indeed, 811 W. Lanvale St.'s diverse past lives make it one of the most history-rich addresses in Baltimore.

A sign reading upton school is plastered to the building today but this is misleading. There are teachers in the building, but no students. Since 1977, the looming brick house has been headquarters for the Baltimore City Public School System's Home and Hospital Services, which caters to the educational needs of students who cannot attend their regular schools due to illness or injury, or because they've been expelled for misconduct. Upton teachers visit shut-in students at home and in hospitals, or provide instruction over the phone.

My hilltop guide is Wayne Schaumburg, who's both an Upton teacher and a consummate Baltimore history buff. (His tours of Green Mount Cemetery were the subject of the Oct 13, 1999 edition of Charmed Life.) Schaumburg's been researching Upton for years, amassing a bulging file of clippings and photos chronicling his workplace's prolific past.

"It's said that this is the only surviving Greek Revival country house in Baltimore," he says. "And yet nobody knows it's still here."

This was rural land when prominent Baltimore attorney David Stewart built Upton more than 160 years ago, following a design attributed to noted architect Robert Cary Long Jr. Stewart served a single month in the U.S. Senate, finishing the term of Reverdy Johnson when the senator from Maryland was tapped to become U.S. attorney general in 1849, but his main claim to fame was as a host: He staged lavish society parties in Upton's ornate oversized parlor. Indeed, it's said that Stewart's indulgent lifestyle left him plagued with gout, and he frequently rested his aching joints in the house's (since-removed) rooftop cupola watching clipper ships coming and going in the harbor. These were bucolic days.

Following Stewart's death in 1858, Upton passed to the Dammanns, a family of woolen-goods importers. While they partied in the parlor, Baltimore ballooned, choking the hilltop with rowhouses and streets. By the turn of the century, Upton had become a stodgy white elephant--a country house in a burgeoning city, possessed of more than a dozen marble and onyx fireplaces but no central furnace. The Dammanns sold it to a bank in 1901, and the place fell vacant. Robert Young--identified in old accounts only as a "Negro musician"--lived there for awhile in the '20s (though only in the summer, as the place still didn't have heat).

In 1929, Upton's lofty location caught the eye of radio station WCAO, which had taken to the air just seven years earlier as one of the city's first broadcasters. The station moved in and carved the old edifice up into studios, record libraries, and offices and planted twin, 165-foot-tall transmission towers on the lawn. For the next 18 years, Upton was the city's source for music, news, and the comic antics of Amos 'n' Andy and Lum and Abner.

When WCAO outgrew the house in 1947, the Baltimore Institute of Musical Arts bought it for $40,000. Founded in 1943, the institute was an African-American conservatory--the only accredited music school open to blacks south of New York City, Schaumburg says. Its staff included Baltimore Symphony Orchestra members, and its dean was the namesake grandnephew of famed German composer Felix Mendelssohn.

"Their first commencement was held right over there, Schaumburg says, pointing to stretch of lawn north of the house. "At one point, they had 300 students."

Conservatory officials had hoped to replace Upton with a large modern school building but were never able to raise enough money. It closed in 1955, largely because integration gave blacks access to other schools.

The city school system took over the Upton mansion in 1957 and used it for a special-ed school until Home and Hospital Services took it over in '77. Fire codes prompted the city to replace the house's distinctive two-story portico with an enclosed staircase, but by then much of the 19th-century opulence had been stripped from the place. Some decorative ironwork bearing the Stewart family crest still clings to the facade, and Schaumburg can point to a few other interior residuals of former glory: some ornate wooden door frames and paneling, a curving oak staircase (now largely slathered over with linoleum). Overall, though, David Stewart's former country home is bare, functional, and more than a little crumbling--a forgotten landmark in a faded neighborhood.

"Perhaps the most unique thing about Upton," Schaumburg concludes, "is that it's still here at all."

Wayne Schaumburg hopes to write a book about Upton. If you have any knowledge of the house or of WCAO's and the Baltimore Institute of Musical Arts' tenancies there, please contact him at (410) 256-2180 or wschaumburg@earthlink.net.

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