Druid Hill Park’s 150th birthday

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Carol Sorgen

For many Baltimoreans, Druid Hill Park was virtually their own backyard.

In the summer of 1948 when Leona Holly was 15 years old, she would leave her house almost every day for her “second home,” Druid Hill Park.
“It was my favorite destination,” the now 76-year-old Baltimore City resident recalled. “When you didn’t have a lot of money, you could always go to the park.”

Holly — sometimes accompanied by her brother — would stroll beneath the large gray archway that is the entrance to Druid Hill Park at the intersection of Madison Avenue and Cloverdale Road.

Following the red brick path, she would walk toward the reservoir, pass the white marble statue of Christopher Columbus, continue walking past what was then called the “Colored People’s Pavilion,” past the “Colored People’s Tennis Courts,” to her destination, the “Colored People’s Swimming Pool.” Though Holly and her friends were not allowed in the “White Only Swimming Pool,” they enjoyed the swimming, the water pageants and the competitions.

“It never bothered me that there were segregated pools,” she said. “It felt as though I had my own private pool.”

Today, fortunately, the segregated facilities are gone and the old “colored pool” is used to house Baltimore City police horses. The “white only pool” is now open to everyone, as are the tennis courts and park pavilions.

October celebration

This year, the park that was an oasis for many Baltimore childhoods will celebrate its 150th year. From Oct. 12 to 16, the Friends of Druid Hill Park will host an anniversary celebration to reconnect those who once loved the park and introduce a new generation to its 745 acres, which include the 15-acre Baltimore City Zoo, 135 acres of woodland, miles of carriage and bridle paths, a lake and picnic groves.

Druid Hill is the third-oldest public park in the country, behind New York’s Central Park and Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park. And its zoo is the third-oldest in the country. The Baltimore Park Commission purchased what had once been the privately owned Druid Hill estate in 1860. Designed to replicate an English garden, the highlight of the estate was the mansion house, built in 1801.

A number of structures date to the 18th century, when the estate was still in private hands, and other now-historic buildings that were added when the grounds were converted to a public park.

Some of the more notable examples are Orem’s Way Station, built in 1864; the main entrance gates at Madison Avenue, built in 1867-68; the Chinese pagoda, built in 1865; and the conservatory, built in 1888.

Steeped in history

“Druid Hill Park is the heart of historic Baltimore,” said Anne Draddy, co-author with Eden Unger Bowditch of the book, Druid Hill Park,published by History Press in 2008. Draddy, who works for Baltimore City, says she intimately knows the park, which she calls a “gem.”

Whether because of its land traceable back to the Susquehannock Indians, or the park’s involvement in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, or the landmark integrated tennis match held there in 1948 despite its segregated facilities, the park is important not just to the history of Baltimore but to the country as well, Draddy said.

The history of the park lends it special status, agreed Dr. David T. Terry, director of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture.

“Druid Hill Park is important, not just as a recreational facility, but as a significant historical landmark,” said Terry, who observed that his interest in the park stems from an appreciation of the history of the enslaved and free blacks who have called the park home.

The park wasn’t just an attraction for African American Baltimoreans. Harriet Lynn, artistic director of the Heritage Theatre Artists’ Consortium, grew up accompanying her father, an avid tennis player, to the park.

“Back in the day” when kids could roam on their own, Lynn considered the park her “enchantment.”

“I always thought of it as ‘my’ park,” she said and, in fact, credits much of the imaginative bent that led her to a life in the creative arts to the childhood hours she spent in the park creating a vivid fantasy life.

In the days when air conditioning wasn’t found in every home, Lynn also recalled how families would sleep in the park to catch the slightest breeze.

Lynn’s devotion to the park continues to this day. When she returned to Baltimore after having lived out of town, she moved to the Temple Gardens section of the city so she could be near the park, and several years ago she taught tai chi in the park’s Orchid Room.

The park played a significant role in the lives of Jewish families like Lynn’s, many of whom lived in the nearby neighborhoods before “suburban flight” took root in the mid-1960s.

“From 1920 to 1960, Druid Hill Park was Jewish Baltimore’s green oasis and the geographic center of the Jewish community,” said Barry Kessler, former curator of the Jewish Museum of Maryland and the Baltimore City Life Museums.

Kessler recently wrote a history of the park as it related to the Jewish community for the Baltimore Jewish Environmental Network. (The history is available online at www.bjen.org.) “The history of Druid Hill Park and Baltimore’s Jewish communities are profoundly intertwined,” Kessler said.

The park’s fall and rebirth

But that was then and this is now, Kessler added. Baltimore City fell on hard times, as did the park. The surrounding neighborhoods declined, crime increased, and the park was no longer anyone’s oasis. “People aren’t familiar with the park anymore,” said Kessler. “To many, the park seems distant and forbidding.”

Kessler believes one reason is that children today don’t have the same interest in or need for a home-away-from-home oasis. In-home entertainment is just a mouse click away, and for those who can be pried away from their electronics, the mom-and dad- escort-service is usually called for.

A number of people are trying to show Baltimoreans just what they’ve missing, starting with the 150th Druid Hill Park Anniversary Celebration. The event will include tours, lectures, a tree dedication and sports clinics, as well as a gala for which guests are invited to dress from any period of the park’s 150-year history, according to Rob Brennan, Treasurer of the Friends of Druid Hill Park.

Brennan, founder of Brennan + Company Architects and one of the few Baltimore County residents in the group, joined because he has a great interest in the city, in urbanism in general, and in the park as an amenity to city life.

Brennan admits that city parks in general, and Druid Hill Park in particular, have not enjoyed a heyday for many a year. But as the city pumps money into the park and residents of the city and surrounding counties look for what Brennan calls a much-needed “escape valve from the hard edge of the city,” the park is enjoying a resurgence in popularity.

For example, the city will be opening a phase of the Jones Falls Trail running through the park along the reservoir, past the zoo, and straight to the Woodberry neighborhood of the city.

“When you drive by [Druid Hill], you can just feel the draw of it,” said Brennan. “You want to get in there.”

For a complete schedule of events for the Druid Hill Park anniversary celebration, visit http://druidhillpark.org or call (443) 469-8274.