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House of writer H.L. Mencken remains in disrepair

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Local,Maryland

BALTIMORE (AP) — Al Reed is used to strange cars being parked on his block of Hollins Street. He'll watch people get out and examine the three-story brick row home a few doors down from his, snap some pictures and peer into the windows.

That's just fine with Reed. He's thankful the old house on Union Square still brings people to the community, even if they can't get inside.

"The interest is incredible despite the deplorable condition," Reed said.

The house at 1524 Hollins St. belonged to iconic Baltimore writer H.L. Mencken. It's been deteriorating for years, opened only on special occasions, a source of frustration to West Baltimore residents and legions of Mencken admirers who believe it deserves a better fate.

What is even more infuriating to many of them is that a $3 million gift to convert the home into a museum has been sitting unused in an account now controlled by the city of Baltimore. For nine years.

How this happened is partly a tale of a rivalry between two groups vying for control of Mencken's legacy and his house and a city government not eager to be on the hook for financing the house's restoration.

The home's fate has not been aided by the beating Mencken's reputation took after the 1989 publication of his diaries suggested he could be anti-Semitic and a racist and was sympathetic to Nazi Germany.

So it sits, needing an estimated $500,000 in repairs.

Throughout his years Mencken maintained a deep love for the home where he was raised, became successful and lived quietly after a stroke in 1948 robbed him of the ability to read and write.

"(The house is) as much a part of me as my own two hands," Mencken wrote.

Inside, the Mencken house isn't much different from most Baltimore row homes of that era. It has a narrow staircase that winds its way up three floors. The rooms are mostly set up in efficient square or rectangle shapes. There are a few features serving as reminders that Mencken lived there, such as the bookshelves that line walls in his bedroom.

The house has a worsening soft spot on the floor near the dining room. The roof is leaking, and the plaster is coming off a wall in the second drawing room.

But the backyard is still vibrant, with lilacs in the garden and grapes growing from a pergola adorned with tiles Mencken himself put in. The outline of the pen where he and his brother August Mencken kept a Shetland pony as children is still visible.

Mencken's family moved into the home in the 1880s when he was just a few years old. He would spend the rest of his life, with the exception of five years during his marriage to Sara Haardt, living in the house. He worked in the home's second-floor front study, primarily lived out of the second drawing room and had a special attachment to the backyard garden.

As a writer, critic and journalist he was known for his acerbic wit and love of his hometown. He mocked government, despised temperance and wasn't fond of religious fundamentalism. In 1925 Mencken suggested to noted defense attorney Clarence Darrow that he defend John Scopes, a biology teacher in Tennessee charged with breaking a state statute against teaching the theory of evolution.

He started the journal American Mercury, the first mainstream magazine to print black writers such as Langston Hughes. During his time he would become one of the most influential men in the country and be dubbed the Bard of Baltimore.

In 2005, Max Hency, a retired naval officer living in Hawaii, passed away and bequeathed $3 million to turn Mencken's house into a museum. The funds were left for the City Life Museums, which initially oversaw Mencken's home but which shuttered in 1997. The bequest then reverted to control of the city of Baltimore.

In the last few years, efforts to renovate the house have sporadically gained momentum as the Friends of H.L. Mencken and the Society to Preserve H.L. Mencken's Legacy worked on the project.

Those efforts suffered a serious blow nearly two years ago with the death of one of the driving forces behind the project, former Friends of H.L. Mencken President Richard Pickens. At the time, the two groups were starting the process of legally merging because having two organizations working to revive the house made it confusing for the city.

When that process took too long, activists decided to merge the groups by appointing members of Friends of H.L. Mencken to the board of the Society to Preserve H.L. Mencken's Legacy. Betsey Waters, who is now president of both groups, said they've abandoned the process of legally merging the organizations and that the friends group is scheduled to vote on dissolving itself at its annual meeting.

In addition to wrestling with the technical issues of forming a single group, Waters said, members of the two Mencken groups have again started meeting with city officials about taking over the property. She said she met in early June with Planning Director Tom Stosur and with representatives from several other city agencies to discuss the house and the use of Hency's endowment.

"I think we all got a chance to meet each other and we got a chance to talk about what our expectations were. I think it was made clear that the money is definitely there, it had to be sequestered in a separate account, and it's not part of the general fund," Waters said. "It has been accruing a small amount of interest over the time there."

She said the city wants to make sure the group is capable of running the house without constantly coming back looking for money. The current business plan, which was developed a decade ago and updated three years ago, calls for the house to be run as a small museum that hosts events and possibly a writing center.

Waters said she understands the city's concern, but she said the $3 million would serve as a sustainable endowment to pay for the home's operating expenses. But there's also the question of whether the group should raise the money for renovations or whether the city should make repairs.

"Right now, if we have any kind of event at the house, it takes like 20 minutes for the toilet to fill up," Waters said.

And there are complications involved with raising money for the Mencken House. One of the problems is the negative publicity that attended the publication of his diaries in 1989.

"I do believe it has hindered the fundraising," Waters said. "But then again, history is history. You can't change the way someone perceived something — maybe you can learn from it."

Caron Brace, a spokeswoman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's office, confirmed the city has met with Waters about the project. She didn't elaborate on whether the city is any closer to making a decision regarding the home's future.

"We look forward to continuing this discussion to determine the role the Society might play in the renovation of the house, and/or future programming, post renovation," Brace wrote in an email.

Nervous Mencken admirers and neighbors are waiting for something to happen with the property.

August Mencken once said his brother had a "special horror" that the home would be "wrecked" after he died, according to the website of the Friends of H.L. Mencken.

Al Reed is frustrated. He's lived down the street from the Mencken house for more than a decade, and wants to see progress. He questions why the city has held onto the money for all these years. He wants to know why the Inner Harbor gets tons of investment but money donated for a project benefitting his neighborhood is unspent.

"I don't think the current mayor knows where the Mencken house is," Reed said.

The surrounding homes are well-kept. Some of them have been converted into apartments. There are still a good amount of owner-occupied homes that look out across the street onto the verdant Union Square Park, where women push strollers, residents walk dogs and kids play ball near the center fountain. It's a transitional neighborhood, with development pressure from the University of Maryland BioPark pushing from the east and hampered by some of West Baltimore's more notorious areas that surround the community.

On a balmy July morning Michael Muller walked his two small dogs in Union Square Park. He moved to the neighborhood about four years ago and was excited to be near the historic home — especially since Muller is a writer, too.

"I hope something happens with it," Muller said.

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