We visited Baltimore on Wednesday, March 13, over spring break. We took the MARC Penn Line train from Union Station in D.C. to Penn Station north of downtown Baltimore. First of all, Union Station is truly a jewel among American train stations. It was at risk of being lost just a few decades ago, but today it is a vibrant center complete with specialty stores, a food court, and even a movie theater. It is definitely something Washington can be proud of and a grand entrance to the city.
The ride to Baltimore wasn’t too exciting, just a few suburban commuter stations and a stop at BWI Airport. Coming into Baltimore, the view was of endless rowhouses, empty streets, and masses of trash and litter aside the tracks. The platform at Penn Station is outside on the back end of the building and certainly is not the grand entrance into Baltimore like Union Station is to D.C. After walking up a flight of old, worn stairs a hallway leads to a large waiting area at the front. This space has some grandeur but there is no one there. With no restaurants or stores at the station there is really no reason for travelers to linger there much. The exterior of the station is pretty nice but there is a huge, ugly statue blocking it, standing tall in the center of a taxi drive-thru circle in front of the terminal.
Penn Station is located at the north edge of downtown, maybe 20 blocks or so from the Inner Harbor. We started heading south on Charles Street, which leads in to the “cultural hub” of Baltimore at Mt. Vernon Square. On our way there, most of the buildings were older of course, no buildings very tall at this point. Most of the sidewalks consisted of a haphazard combination of old bricks and concrete. The streets were not in the best visual condition either, most with numerous patches. There was not a whole lot of activity in this area but there were a couple buildings we past that were being worked on for renovations, so that is a good thing.
At Mt. Vernon Square, Charles Street divides into two sides and a narrow green space exists between it. In the very center is the Baltimore George Washington Monument, actually built before the one in D.C. It is basically a round tower with a slightly wider, circular base. It was actually open and we were able to walk up a long spiral staircase to the top where there are windows to look out over the city. The interior of the tower had a lot of writing on from past visitors, but the exterior and base of the monument is well kept, which really is the most important.
Mt. Vernon Square is surrounded by the Peabody Library and a number of other museums and cultural elements of Baltimore. At the northeast corner of the square sits the historic Mount Vernon Square United Methodist Church made with various types and colors of stone, including green serpentine marble, giving it a dark green/brown appearance. It’s towering steeple at the corner gives the square two visual high points. Mount Vernon Square is certainly nice but for being the cultural and in some sense, the “best” part of Baltimore, it could use some improvements. In general much of the green space, especially north of the monument is featureless and not really utilized. Since the most surrounding buildings aren’t more than five or ten stories tall, the space feels very open and almost vulnerable. Being fairly close to the barren area around Penn Station and a freeway slicing through just a couple blocks to the east, the square is not as cozy and secluded as I would like.
Heading further south to the harbor, we entered the more built-up core of downtown with more skyscrapers, some old and some newer. The massive Charles Center complex stands out like a soar thumb and looks completely mix-matched and awkward. It was an urban renewal project back in the day, including office and residential towers. One Charles Center is the prominent office building, designed by Mies van der Rohe. Usually I’m not a big fan of Modernism, but I really don’t mind this one, especially in contrast with the other buildings in the complex. A few of them are starkly unattractive, especially one of the residential buildings that appears more like public housing projects than desirable apartments. Another slightly newer residential building reminds me of a retirement home in Fargo, only much taller.
Much of the complex is situation at an angle to the historic street grid and there aren’t any through streets through the super block it took for itself. The angles of the building create confusing inconsistency on the traditional grid of downtown and the city as a whole. It also makes the skyline view a bit awkward if you ask me. At the base in the center area is a low rise, newer development that doesn’t seem to belong at all. Like the rest of the Charles Center, it gives little respect to the street grid and forms its own random public space in the front. The building it self looks like a short suburban strip center without the parking. There is no defined roof level with a bunch of haphazard elevated portions, I imagine for mechanical purposes. We walked through part of the super block, which was quite inactive in the middle. Perhaps they shouldn’t have closed off the streets…
Note: This is an incomplete post.
See all my photos of Baltimore here.