IT'S MORE than probable that the acerbic critic H.L. Mencken would not take kindly to the public tramping through his house at 1524 Hollins Street in Baltimore. He didn't even invite his friends there much. It was his refuge and joy for 68 of his 75 years and even the famous Saturday Night Club soir,ees took place in Shellhase Saloon off Mount Vernon Square, not at 1524 Hollins.
A trip to Mencken's house is like a visit to the man himself, so well has the city restored this stately middle-class row house overlooking Union Square. The house is even inhabited -- with life-size photographic cutouts that give the impression the man himself is still in residence, sitting there with his brother, August, raising a glass of gin along with the issues of his day. Imagination and careful research have gone into the recreation of the old house, from its proper white marble front steps to the gazebo in the back garden.
Much of Mencken's writing, pondering and reading was done in the upstairs front study, a big sunny room that houses his rolltop desk, comfortable chairs and a twin to his original 1888 Smith-Corona typewriter, now in the Mencken room of Baltimore's Enoch Pratt library. Blown-up photos have been installed here to show us how Mencken lived and worked, pounding out his acid criticism of American culture.
"I was a larva of the comfortable and complacent bourgeoisie . . . encapsulated in affection and kept fat, saucy and contented. Thus I got through my nonage without acquiring an inferiority complex," said Mencken of his life in this house and of his inconoclastic invective against the ideas of the '20s. His work, however, dealt mainly with contemporary issues and he fell out of style with the Depression. Today his fame rests more on his book, "The American Language," than on his criticism. He's a period piece, like his house, but that's part of the charm of both. He's a '20s personality and, in this house, you step back into his period when newspaper reporting was, as he said, "the maddest, gladdest, damndest existence ever enjoyed by mortal youth," and the aristocrat had a duty to correct "the booboisie."
Downstairs, the house has been restored to the way it was in the 19th century when Mencken was brought here by his parents as an infant. The neighborhood slid downhill in the mid-'50s -- Mencken died January 29, 1956 -- but is now in the process of re- gentrification.
The floors are what catch your eye first -- beautiful oak parquet with inlaid borders of dark mahogany and walnut, restored recently by private donations and a grant from the city. A huge pier mirror with carved gilt frame, its top extending to adjoining windows on either side, dominates the front parlor. In the inner sitting room is a massive cabinet displaying Mencken's collection of beer mugs. This is the room where Mencken and brother August spent most of their time in front of the fire, drinking beer and talking about life. Audio-visual displays here give you a look into the era.
In the small dining room beyond, the original Hepplewhite furniture is back in residence after being on loan to the Smithsonian. If you have a little spare money, you can give a smashing party here. It's $250 to rent the house, and an additional $150 to use the garden, too. The catering is up to you, although the curator is happy to provide advice. Then you can seat your guests around Mencken's dining room table. Money from such private parties goes toward maintaining the house.
Mencken apparently used his home as a refuge, sallying forth to his newspaper job at the Baltimore Sun, to Shellhase for his beers and to his private clubs, the Hamilton and the Maryland. After moving in as an infant, he left only for his brief marriage to Sara Haardt, who, when they exchanged vows in August 1930, had been given only three years to live but lived on as Mrs. Mencken for five.
Nowhere do you feel the presence of the man himself more than in the narrow back garden, bounded by high walls and restored along with the house to its prime. Mencken was a man who loved to putter and, at the far end of this miniscule garden, he put up a gazebo where he and August sat of a summer evening, talking and drinking straight gin over crushed ice. The gazebo has been repaired and the dying pear tree is scheduled to be replaced with another as much like it as possible. Everything is as it was, including the death mask of Beethoven and the small touching grave of Tessie, 1905- 1921. Everybody supposes it to be the family dog, but Mencken scholars have scurried back to his work to search fruitlessly for any mention of Tessie.
One other detail has been painstakingly recreated. An odd occupation of the brothers was to paint kindling sticks in various shads, for what reason no one is sure, though possibly to make a prettily laid fire. Accordingly, there's a pile of kindling dressed up in rainbow hues in the garden.
At the end of this immersion in Menckenania, you might not be surprised to encounter his ghost, taking a stroll in the square, cigar in hand. If you do, keep in mind he left us concrete instructions on what to do in such a situation.
"If, after I depart this vale, you ever remember me and have thought to please my ghost, forgive some sinner and wink your eye at a homely girl." DINING IN THE MENCKEN STYLE
If you've decided not to hire the Mencken dining room, you might want to linger in Mencken's world by lunching at Marconi's, 106 West Saratoga Street, where Mencken often went. The food is good and the atmosphere pleasant. Closed Sunday and Monday; 301/752-0286. To get there from the Mencken house, head east to Stricker Street, turn right past Lombard Street to Pratt Street, left onto Pratt, then left on Charles, then left on Saratoga.
GETTING TO THE MENCKEN HOUSE -- From the Capital Beltway, take I-95 north to I-395, follow signs to Martin Luther King Boulevard. At the third light on Martin Luther King, turn left onto Lombard Street to Union Square. Hollins Street is parallel to Lombard on the other side of the square. The house is open Wednesday through Sunday, 10 to 5; 301/396-7997. Adults $1; seniors 75 cents; kids 18 and under free.