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House of writer H.L. Mencken remains in disrepair

Published on NewsOK Modified: July 7, 2014 at 12:04 pm •  Published: July 7, 2014

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.

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