By Jean Lee Cole
In 1906, Baltimore Sun reporter Emily Emerson Lantz described John Street as “a modest little scrap of a street—only six short blocks in all.” Yet what erudition, artistic inspiration, and human experience lived there. In “John Street and Its Celebrities” (Baltimore Sun, Apr. 8, 1906), Lantz, who lived herself at 1704 John, lovingly depicted some of her illustrious neighbors.
Lantz (1862-1931) got her start at the Baltimore News in 1894 before she was taken on by the Sun, where she wrote features, art criticism, and a regular column, “Frocks and Frills,” over the course of the next three decades. Her series on Maryland counties was eventually published in book form under the title The Spirit of Maryland (1929).
John street is not an imposing thoroughfare from an architectural point of view. There is not a church, nor a club, nor a public building along its length. The term “palatial residence” could not by any flight of imagination be applied to a single one of its quite group of houses, but it is none the less picturesque, pre-eminently homelike and possesses an air of refinement. There are a good many trees, suggestive of the retirement of a country town, and diversity is accorded to almost every block by the interspersion of cottage houses, with plats of green grass and little porches before their entrances.
The latchkey of one householder is not a passkey to the entire block. Visitors recognize the houses of their acquaintances by some distinction architectural feature, and are not dependent upon an elusive number, or remembering that their friend’s home is the with step from the drug store. The interiors of the residences are as diversified as their exteriors.
But it is not for any of the above mentioned reasons that John street is unique among the streets of Baltimore. There is a quaint, pretty and hospitable adage, “The ornaments of the house are the guests who adorn it,” and as with houses so with neighborhood sections— it is the people who reside there who give to a locality character and distinctive interest. Cheyne Row, London, England, will be forever associated with the lives and literary work of Thomas and Jeanie (Welsh) Carlyle, with Dante Gabriel and Christina Rossetti, with Rev. H. R. Haweis and other distinguished writers, and quiet John street bears her literary laurels with so much modesty that Baltimoreans as a rule do not appreciate the fact that within the short six squares that comprise this street have been grouped the homes of an unusually brilliant coterie of literary men and women— writers some of whom are known upon both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, while all of them have achieved distinguished reputations in the world of letters.
And who were these illustrious figures?
Lantz went on to name a variety of university professors and prominent members of the legal profession. It was, needless to say, an expansive compendium, running some four thousand words.
Who knew John St. could nurture so much human greatness? Nevertheless, at least one neighbor apparently felt left out. A few days after Lantz’s column was published, a letter to the Sun came from “An Unknown Author” who averred that “I, even I, with my family, live on John Street . . . It was really unkind in Miss Lantz to leave out the rest of us, as we are all celebrities in our own estimation, and as John Street is only ‘six blocks long,’ it would not have taken up much more of your valuable space for her to have mentioned all of us.”
Long Ago and Right Here features Bolton Hill news from the past, gleaned from the archives of the Baltimore Sun and other publications. We welcome submissions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jean Lee Cole is a professor of English at Loyola University Maryland and co-editor of the Bolton Hill Bulletin.