Monday is Rib Night at the Mount Vernon Stable, but I’m more often there on Tuesday for Steak Night, the guy—brown hair, beard gone white—way up in the window.
As I chew my 12-ounce New York strip ($13.95 with two sides), my eyes pull into the Parking Management, Inc., surface lot where numbers 906, 908, 910, and 912 North Charles Street used to be. What the heck could succeed there, assuming you could get it built? An Apple store? A high-end cheese shop?
Charles is Baltimore’s 42nd Street, “where the underworld can meet the elite.” The elite skipped out on Mount Vernon when grandpa was a boy, but ships of the city’s cultural fleet—the Peabody Institute, the Walters Art Museum, Center Stage, the Enoch Pratt Free Library, the Baltimore School for the Arts, the Maryland Historical Society—are anchored near the Washington Monument (Robert Mills, 1815), shorter and less severe than the D.C. obelisk, swaddled these days in pre-centennial scaffolding.
And the Maryland Club and a few more of that type (“In the Squash and Fitness area All White attire must be worn.”) continue to occupy their splendid piles (Mount Vernon Club, Tiffany-Fisher House, architect unknown, 1842; Engineers Club, Garrett-Jacobs Mansion, Stanford White, 1884, with additions by John Russell Pope; Maryland Club, Josias Pennington, 1892).
The name Mount Vernon is a tribute to the taciturn General, standing larger than life on a 178-foot Doric column (Melville gives the monument a shout-out in Moby Dick), which will reopen for knee therapy next year. Till then, please have a seat in one of the four rectangular squares and take in the babies, dogs, music students, Walters employees, Circulator riders, vagrants (only a few), wedding parties, and television crews (Veep and House of Cards).
It’s a Dupont Circular scene (see “And Abide Quietly in Your Home” from three weeks ago) with a similar history: the neighborhood declined and became hippified, then turned into the city’s gayborhood (my word of the month), less so now. But unlike Dupont Circle, Mount Vernon has defied gentrification. Though many are glad that the fight to restrict building heights in this historic district was successful, most would welcome more investment and a rise in property values.
I was ecstatic to find that rents were so much lower than in D.C. Entire rowhouses in Mount Vernon can be purchased with what you’d spend on a one-bedroom condo in Dupont (if I only had savings or credit or…). But as much as it’s Charm City at its charmiest, Mount Vernon is on economic life support.
We just came through the Great Recession, I know. Things were much worse in the ’90s, I know. People have been saying Mount Vernon’s a lost cause for 50 years, I know. This is Baltimore, Hon…BELIEVE.
The Stable (run by Lorraine Yagjian, whose husband Peter died in 2009) is planning some kind of 30th anniversary bash in October. It seems to be doing okay, thanks to a reasonably priced, something-for-everyone menu and late hours on weekends (though not as late as Never on Sunday, a few doors down, where the wee hours are a show in themselves). With its décor of architectural castoffs and theater props (Royal Tenenbaum: “Where’s my javelina?”), it is an island of Mount Vernon Stability.
Family-owned restaurants rarely last more than one generation. Some of the most prized in Mount Vernon and other neighborhoods have thrown in the cloth napkin over the past 30 years (see Sun restaurant critic Richard Gorelick’s “Nostalgic Baltimore restaurants then and now”). But there are still plenty, including a few destination restaurants—not how I define ‘destination,’ as you know—such as Qayum (brother of Hamid) Karzai’s Helmand, 806 North Charles, always packed.
The PMI lot I stare into from my table at the Stable would be bad enough if it were the only one, but it’s not. Looking left, there’s a giant one on the corner of Charles and Read, next to the Helmand. Out of sight to the right is another monster (about 50 spots plus 10 for Zipcars) on the corner of Eager.*
In fact, these are tiny principalities in the 67-year-old PMI empire, the ruler of which is Kingdon Gould, III, the great-great-grandson of robber baron Jay Gould. (I encourage you to read all about KGIII’s astounding family on Wikipedia.)
There have been signs—white, hand-lettered public notices—that PMI wants to build on the corner lots, but I haven’t heard any asphalt cracking. Besides, there are other parking barons in Mount Vernon. 926 North Charles is a gap in a corniced row of six (now five) houses, the driveway for a Central Parking expanse that faces a long fence on Cathedral Street.
Next to the Stable is a lot run by Jetset Parking with about 25 spots. People who work for the nonprofits in the green-tinged Latrobe Building (Edward H. Glidden, 1912, read the plaque)—at nine stories a Mount Vernon skyscraper—park there during the day. But at night, in all kinds of weather, a guy stands out in Charles Street flagging down the nightclub crowd, who can park until 5 a.m. or sobriety, whichever comes first, for the price of a spinach pie at Never’s.
Time to download SimCity: Mount Vernon Edition, young landlords!
Choice A: Maintain and pay taxes on several buildings well over 100 years old while renting to undercapitalized retailers and college students.
Choice B: Tear them down (if they let you), pave over, pay as little as possible in property taxes, lobby against higher parking-fee taxes, and count your money as the cars roll in.**
Choice C: Tear them down (if they let you) and borrow millions to build something, Lord knows what, that could conceivably provide an after-tax return on your investment.
Choice D: Unload them and get out of [insert hater’s nickname for Baltimore] before it’s too late.
Choice E: Sit tight because eventually the City or some other sucker will pay a king’s ransom to be rid of you.
Thanks for playing. See you next week, when we’ll visit an “edited bunker” (please review last week’s post, “Arch Bunker in Dublin”) on the Charles Street of New Haven: Chapel Street.
* On the other three corners of this bizarre intersection are Club Hippo, Grand Central and Sappho’s, and the Maryland Club, which, by the way, has flattened roughly half of the Stable side of the block for its own gated parking.
** The PMI lot at Charles and Eager charges a flat rate of $11.50 after 5 p.m. $11.50 x 50 spaces x 2 nights x 52 weeks = $59,800 per year just from the weekend clubbers.