Named after George Washington’s Virginia plantation, Mount Vernon has been the address of literary greats, political leaders, and many other influential members of American society, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Woodrow Wilson, and H.L. Mencken.
Mount Vernon was at the heart of Baltimore’s metamorphosis in the 1800s and 1900s, from a harbor city to a nationally prominent society of wealth and culture. Donated by John Eager Howard, a war hero and governor of Maryland from 1788 to 1791, the land on a wooded hillside was originally the setting of the first memorial to George Washington. In 1829, Robert Mills completed the Washington Monument, a 178-feet-high classic Greek Doric column that would come to serve as the city’s centerpiece. In the 1830s, Mt. Vernon’s four parks were laid out around the monument based on the London residential squares of the Georgian period.
After the Civil War, many of American society’s leaders, including railroad barons and statesmen, moved to Mount Vernon and built magnificent residences in the house lots facing the squares. The neighborhood’s brownstones and townhouses represent a cross-section of 19th century architectural styles, including Georgian, Greek Revival, Renaissance Revival, and Beaux Arts. In 1857, George Peabody first conceived the idea of bringing culture to Baltimore’s residents and wrote to 25 of the city’s leading citizens with a proposal to create such an institution in Mount Vernon. From 1859 to 1866, English architect Edmund Lind designed and built the Peabody Institute in the Renaissance Revival style. Known as Baltimore’s “Cathedral of Books,” the George Peabody Library is considered to have one of the most dramatic interiors on the east coast with its elaborate wrought iron stacks soaring up to a skylighted roof.
Peabody’s philanthropic spirit permeated the atmosphere, and many wealthy residents, including Robert Garrett and William Walters, commissioned famous architects to design buildings and monuments for the area. Notable buildings that rose during that prosperous period include the Thomas-Jencks House, by Niernsee and Nielson (1 West Mt. Vernon Place); the Jacobs House, by Stanford White and enlarged by John Russell Pope (9-11 West Mt. Vernon Place); and the Walters Art Gallery, by Delano and Aldrich (Washington Place and Centre Street).
In the early to mid-1900s, many of the area’s wealthier residents moved to the suburbs, and their mansions were transformed into rental units. Despite the decline of Baltimore’s society, preservationists fought to sustain Mount Vernon’s historic buildings and monuments. After several wars and a depression, the area experienced an urban renewal during Baltimore’s push to rebuild and revitalize the area. The area’s museums, galleries, and institutions have made Mount Vernon Place the cultural Mecca of Baltimore. Fourteen of Baltimore’s most dynamic cultural institutions, all within three blocks of the Washington Monument, comprise the Mount Vernon Cultural District, which receives more than one million visitors each year.
A symbol of Mount Vernon’s continued growth, the Peabody Institute completed a $26.8 million renovation in 2004, including a grand arcade with curving, balustrade stairs that cascade down from the entrance, which reflects the institution’s openness to residents and visitors of the community.
Today, Mount Vernon is a flourishing, modern area of Baltimore that reflects its noble past and inspires its prosperous future. The vibrant neighborhood is home to a diverse mix of students, artists, musicians, professionals, and families. In addition to its cultural institutions, galleries, and museums, there are more than 35 cafes and restaurants, more than 100 shops, and five blocks of antique stores, making a visit to Mount Vernon both an edifying and an entertaining experience.
Originally established as a community cultural center, Peabody remains deeply rooted in the Baltimore community, building and strengthening meaningful connections today through its Preparatory community school for the performing arts; its plethora of opportunities for students to engage deeply with Baltimore arts organizations and community groups; and its free performances that are open to all.