I was spending a long weekend in Baltimore, staying in a historic hotel that proved to be one of the city’s most beautiful buildings. As I walked around “Charm City,” from the reimagined Inner Harbor to the campus of Johns Hopkins University, the built environment of this old city, founded in 1729, continually impressed me. From its grand structures like the Baltimore Museum of Art and the repurposed Pratt Street Power Plant to its famous rowhouses (more here than in any other U.S. city), Baltimore is home to some very noteworthy buildings. These are my favorites.
#1 City Hall
Although casual visitors weren’t allowed inside City Hall, I managed to charm my way in, and the security guard was decent enough to escort me to the central space under the dome. But it’s the exterior that makes this edifice so spectacular. A virtual baby — the 22-year-old architect George Aloysius Frederick — designed the beautiful City Hall, a striking and very commanding Second Empire building with prominent mansard roofs with richly framed dormers, a high cast-iron dome with a row of oculi (one of which is filled in by a clock) and topped by a lantern with a gilded roof, and a columned entrance pavilion. Completed in 1875 after eight years of construction but coming in $200,000 under budget, the building, with a base of banded rustication, is largely clad in white marble — a component that alone contributed to nearly half the entire budget. Renovated in the 1970s (rather than the other less-appealing option: razing), Baltimore’s City Hall remains one of the oldest and most intact examples of Second Empire government architecture in the United States.
#2 Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
More handily called the Baltimore Basilica, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary was the first Roman Catholic cathedral constructed in the United States. Completed in 1821, the basilica has welcomed a long parade of worshippers and visitors, including Mother Teresa, Pope John Paul II, Andrew Johnson, the Marquis de Lafayette, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Alexis de Tocqueville. Situated on a hill above Baltimore Harbor, the basilica was the center of the country’s first archdiocese, from which two-thirds of U.S. Catholic dioceses can trace their heritage. From then, it began an upward trajectory of importance: Originally a cathedral, it was raised to the rank of Minor Basilica in 1937, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1969, declared a National Historic Landmark in 1971, and designated a National Shrine in 1993. The appealing exterior is of silver-gray gneiss and features a wooden double-shell dome and a pair of cylindrical towers. I entered the neo-classical building under a Greek portico with Ionic columns. The interior surprised me: Fairly simple and very bright, elegant, and understated, it was deliberately designed not to resemble elaborate European predecessors. Plaster rosettes adorn the coffered ceiling of the tremendous dome; smaller, saucer-shaped secondary domes surround it. King Louis XVIII of France donated the two major works of art here. Downstairs, I roamed through the quiet crypts under a series of brick arches along the brick herringbone floor. Among those buried here lies the first bishop of the United States, John Carroll, who worked closely with architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe to design the basilica.
#3 Hotel Monaco
At the height of its power and prestige, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad was the largest railroad company in the United States and the largest employer in Maryland. It operated rails in 10 states, from New York to Illinois, from 1828 until 1987, when, through a series of mergers and acquisitions, its name passed into the history books. The company’s 13-story headquarters building, however, survives, and has been exquisitely repurposed as the Hotel Monaco. For the same price one would pay to purchase the B&O in the original Monopoly board game — plus inflation — I stayed in one of the hotel’s 202 rooms. The H-shaped hotel has commanded attention since it was completed in 1906, when it was the second-tallest building in Baltimore. The Beaux Arts structure, with its New Hampshire granite and Bedford stone façade, offers a solid indication of the stylish interior. I passed under the main entrance’s arch, topped with a sculpture of Mercury, the speedy Roman god of commerce, and an allegorical representation called Progress of Industry, holding a locomotive — two figures that perfectly capture the B&O’s raison d’être. The lower lobby features an old brass clock and mailbox, and crystal chandeliers that harken back to the B&O’s glory days. Brass floor indicators above the elevator doors defy superstition by properly labeling the top floor “13,” unwittingly giving a nod to the company’s history that would intrigue any armchair numerologist: Oscar G. Murray, the president of the B&O when this building was constructed, began his career in the railroad business on January 13, was elected the 13th president of the company, moved into his office suite (number 13) on September 13, and could be reached on his phone at extension 13. Two grand marble staircases lead up past the original Tiffany stained-glass windows and emerge onto the main reception area, an abrupt fast-forward to the next century. The sleek lobby, appealing and crisp, is a distant cry from the Gilded Age’s grandeur, yet it blends seamlessly into the historic shell — a delightful combination of new and old that makes this structure a standout.
#4 Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church
When Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church was completed in 1872 in the fashionable Mount Vernon neighborhood, it arrived aggressively: The tallest of its three beautiful steeples soared high above the neighboring buildings, and the green serpentine stone and buff, olive, and red sandstone, plus a trio of bold red main entrance doors, upset the homogeny of the subtler brick and tame color palate used for buildings around it. The fact that the house in which Francis Scott Key died was razed to build the church didn’t endear it to anyone. Today, however, it’s a magnificent and beloved Norman-Gothic structure with flying buttresses, arches, and a tower that are all purely aesthetic and do not serve a functional purpose. Plenty of arched lancet windows and a pair of rose windows relieve the heavy walls. Above the windows, grotesque stone faces are rumored to be likenesses of a few prominent people from the time of construction. Inside, the most striking features are the slender iron columns supporting carved wooden beams and a perfect stained-glass cross above the altar.
#5 Graham-Hughes House
Just down the block from Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, the eye-catching Graham-Hughes House presents the gentility that characterized the Mount Vernon Place Historic District when it was a very elite enclave. A local architect designed the French château-style mansion and completed it in 1888 for the Graham family; daughter Isabella wed a Mr. Hughes and remained in the house until she died in 1977. Clad in white marble, the house gently contrasts with the red-brick and brownstone buildings all around it. A band of sculpted seashells and garlands divides each story of the prominent round corner tower, topped by a conical roof. A small curved stoop leads up to the small entrance, protected by a portico supported by a pair of gray Corinthian columns. Three stories of bay windows on the side lead up to a large arched window and a peaked roof, and the exterior wall of the chimney bears an unusual bulge at the base and a sculpted floral panel higher up. Jammed against its bulkier next-door neighbor, the Graham-Hughes House looks a little squished, but it retains its elegant dignity.
- Bank of America (1924)
- Bromo Seltzer Tower (1911)
- Penn Station (1911)
- Enoch Pratt Free Library (1933)
- Pratt Street Power Plant (1900)