In 1889, John Gilman, prosperous banker and industrialist, commissioned a mansion in Mount Vernon, Baltimore’s most prestigious neighborhood. He chose architect Charles Carson for the job, a master of design who had recently completed Baltimore’s Grand Masonic Venue and the opulent Methodist Church on Mt. Vernon Square. Gilman asked Carson to build him a house to speak of wealth, power and taste, from its inlaid floors to its turreted slate roof. But Gilman also wanted a home. Its rooms should be intimate, its fireplaces welcoming, and its tall windows should frame the charming streetscape.
The mansion was raised on the leafy corner of Biddle and North Calvert Streets, neighbored on all sides by handsome brick and stone residences. But as fate would have it, Gilman did not live to enjoy his new home, dying suddenly just before the house was complete.
Mrs. Gilman lived at the the Biddle Street mansion for several years, then sold it to a man named William Painter, and his amiable wife Harriet. William was a wildly successful inventor, the holder of more than 100 patents, and the president of the Crown Cork and Seal Co., manufacturer of bottle caps, corks and closures of all kinds. The Painters were very sociable and philanthropic, hosting debutant balls and society events, dedicating parks and statues. The Painters and their three children divided their time between the house on Biddle Street and an opulent summer home in Guilford. Father and son were great fans of the work of fellow Baltimorean Edgar Allan Poe, and made sure to send birthday flowers to his grave every year.
When William passed on, Harriet built a children’s hospital in his name in the city. Soon afterwards, she sold the mansion to Dr. Thomas Futcher, a Canadian physician and noted diagnostician recruited to join Johns Hopkins, and he set up office and family in the Biddle Street house. The Futchers lived and worked there quietly for years. The Great Depression rolled in, the neighborhood changed, and the mansion was gifted to the Baltimore Parks and Recreation Department by Robert Garrett, its longtime chairman (and one of America’s first Olympic gold medalists). Finally, in the early 1980s, Mayor William Schaefer decided to use the now-empty – but still beautiful – house for hosting visiting dignitaries.
Today, after an extraordinary update and total rehabilitation, the house is as grand and glorious as ever: garlanded in ivy, high windows shining, turrets rising above the trees and gardens blossoming below. The attention lavished upon it more than a century ago by architect Charles Carson is today evident at every turn, from its leaded glass windows to its carved wood wainscoting, 23 individual fireplaces, green marble mined from local quarries, and a magnificent central staircase that climbs three stories past stained glass toward the radiance of the original skylights at the top, like an ascent to heaven.
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