Historic Preservation Comes Alive:

Patterson Park Pagoda, Celebrated Victorian Lady, Once More Struts Her Stuff

by Elaine Shen

"That's what I miss, the old things," said John Foos. "Once you take them, they're never here again. They're lost." Except for the Patterson Park Pagoda.

Last Saturday, hundreds turned out for the reopening of the Patterson Park Pagoda, a project of Friends of Patterson Park, a community group.

The Victorian pagoda, situated on Hampstead Hill, used to be lined with 100 cannons when the Hill was a military defense site. On this Saturday in 2002, it was flanked by 100 saxophones instead (well, almost: there were 69 brass and 31 inflated vinyl ones) that offered a jazzed-up rendition of "When the Saints Go Marching In."

People of all ages, from all parts of the city, attended this civic gathering and enjoyed a Punch and Judy puppet show and rickshaw rides.

The pagoda was designed by architect Charles H. Latrobe, and was built as an observatory in 1891 to commemorate the 1814 Battle of Baltimore during the War of 1812. Patterson Park itself represents an era when many American cities regarded the urban park as a symbol of their prosperity and civility.

But the historical facts of the park seem dry in comparison to the rich memories of those who came to the park on April 27.

After the official ribbon cutting and thank-yous, I wandered over to the "Tell your park memories" table, where 80-year-old John F. Hartman was anxious to share his fond recollections of park dances, concerts and other summer activities.

"I used to sleep in the park at night when it was hot," he told me. I raised my eyebrows in disbelief.

"Everyone slept in the park," chimed in John Johnson. "There wasn't any air-conditioning back then." I tried to envision what Mr. Johnson and Mr. Hartman described: the park covered with more than 500 people, children and adults, sleeping on the grounds on a humid summer night.

An energetic conversation ensued as more people gathered to recount their memories.

"There was no curfew in the park."

"What'd you do about the mosquitoes?"

"We didn't have them."

"We had the best fireworks on the 4th of July."

"What I liked best was I could come here on Saturdays at the bathhouse and get a shower during the Depression. Five cents--five cents to get a towel and soap."

"At the old bandstand down here, they would have park concerts which were first-class. It was the municipal park band. Johann Sebastien Park was the conductor."

"I was married on the front steps of the pagoda," added Mary Bloom, a resident of Butcher's Hill. Asked to describe what the pagoda looked like 12 years ago when she was married, she happily showed me the wedding pictures she brought to the park event. Before the renovations, the pagoda's paint was chipped, and its windows were broken or simply boarded up. "The building itself was falling apart," commented Bloom, who came with her husband to the park event to have another picture of themselves taken with the newly restored pagoda.

A little way down the hill, Boy Scout tents were set-up for a "camporee"--an overnight camping event involving several troops from the same district. John Foos, who grew up in the Patterson area, brought his troop. He shared childhood memories of Scouting trips in the 1950s and '60s--to the skating rink, sledding down "Cannon Hill," and camporees with "wall-to-wall kids."

"But there's just not participation anymore," lamented Foos. "That's what I miss, the old things. Once you take them, they're never here again. They're lost."

Some things about the park have changed. Because of fears about safety, no one sleeps in the park anymore, except for the homeless on occasion.

"I think it's a great place for kids, but I wouldn't send my kids here alone, not even in the daytime," admitted Bloom, "because there's just too many drugs up here, people with their dogs running loose and because of what walks up and down Patterson Park Avenue [prostitutes]. My kids have to cross that gauntlet. I'm not real thrilled about it."

But some parts of the park that have changed will be back, newly restored. The reconstruction of the boat lake should be complete by March 2003 and is part of a comprehensive Master Plan for Patterson Park that was commissioned by the Friends group. The plan included the renovation of the pagoda, increasing perimeter lighting and restoring the Latrobe fountain near the Lombard Street park entrance.

The Friends, a park advocacy group with about 300 members, has brought back Patterson Park traditions like the Frog Hop and Turtle Derby and has introduced new events like the Bike Jam and a Halloween Lantern parade. The Friends are also starting to compile a history of Patterson Park, with the eventual goal of publishing a book in order that memories like those shared at the pagoda re-opening will not be forgotten.

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This story was published on May 2, 2002.