The Magazine

Mencken Slept Here

Has Baltimore forgotten the Sage of Baltimore?

Aug 6, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 44 • By GARIN HOVANNISIAN
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For the first half of the 20th century, an ordinary row house in a quiet Baltimore neighborhood was the castle of American intellectual culture. From its book-lined second-story office, the man on the throne canonized F. Scott Fitzgerald and James Joyce, paralyzed perceptions of Franklin D. Roosevelt, swayed Clarence Darrow to the defense of a young biology teacher, and clanged out more than 10 million of the juiciest words to pass through an American typewriter.

At 1524 Hollins Street, H.L. Mencken commanded the thunder and lightning of his era.

Overlooking placid Union Square, the three-story Italianate house is not exactly distinctive. Unlike the lairs of many literary types, the Mencken family home is identical to its neighbors left and right, and blends casually into the brick-lined tradition of its block. Though he dined and dueled with the finest, the Holy Terror was most at peace in this modest habitat of intellect and family, where he spent the great majority of his life. Yet to the outsider, the Hollins Street home has neither charm nor magic to speak of; these are values secreted only by recollections of the citizen-king who reigned inside.

On the ground floor of home, as of personality, a small parlor with a grand piano hosted Mencken's Saturday Night Club, a regular event that attracted a set of bachelors with personal devotion to classical music and public enthusiasm for beer and brotherhood. At the office on the second story, the social creature morphed into an intellectual and polemicist; with a flair for freedom and stampeding prose, he governed the tides of influence of American political and literary culture. And in his bedroom at the top, Mencken retired to sleep. It was in this bedroom, too, that he surrendered his angel, with this famous valediction as his final mischief: "If, after I depart this vale, you ever remember me and have thought to please my ghost, forgive some sinner and wink your eye at some homely girl."

Yet it was not the house, but rather its green and roomy garden that accommodated the laboratory for young Mencken's childhood experiments. In that "strange, wild land of endless discoveries and enchantments," Henry's imagination pursued new refinements in the troublemaking and rogueries of boyhood. Years later, as an adult, Mencken built a sundial, a pergola, and the beginnings of a brick wall. Set into the wall, and still surviving, are tiles chiseled from the creator's personality, like the death mask of Beethoven and the founding notes of the Fifth Symphony. In his final season of life, Mencken frequently withdrew to that very same garden with his nostalgia and cigar: "It is as much a part of me," he wrote, "as my two hands."

When H.L. Mencken died in 1956, he left house and garden to his brother August who, upon his own death, bequeathed it to the University of Maryland. Thoroughly delighted by its new acquisition, Maryland used this national landmark to lodge students of sociology--which Mencken considered "the outhouse in the grove of academe"--then upgraded it into a storage facility, and finally decided to swap it with the City of Baltimore for an old police station. Under the auspices of a project called City Life Museums, Baltimore refurbished and opened the house to the public for 13 years, from 1984 until 1997, when the City Life Museums series was shut down.

Today, the Mencken House is another plot of "surplus property" owned by the city, condemned to termites and, perhaps, oblivion. The Friends of the H.L. Mencken House and the Society to Preserve Mencken's Legacy have been granted "right of entry"--which they extend, by appointment, to the general public--but for whatever reason, the city has blocked requests to revamp and reopen the house as a nonprofit museum. Even with celebrity support from the likes of Gore Vidal and Susan Sarandon--whose bonds with Mencken subsist, I suspect, largely because Mencken does not--the city has made no decision on the Mencken House. Eighty boxes of books and furnishings have been deposited at the Maryland Historical Society, leaving Hollins Street naked and charmless.

I discovered this recent history during a tour of the Mencken House, which was really a workshop on home improvement. Oleg Panczenko, secretary both of The Friends and The Society, guided me along the trails of its prominent leaks, the cracks in its ceilings, and the dilapidations of its floors, which brought me to a patch of paneling turned feast for termites. In the battle between Mencken and the termites, Baltimore cheered on the pests; it took city administrators nine months to authorize an extermination.