With one foot upon the hearth, Robert Brent Keyser might have closed his eyes and listened to the fire's crackle as it intermingled with the words of Frederick Law Olmsted, the eminent architect who helped design New York's Central Park.
The topic of their conversation would have been the blueprints and sketches that lay upon a nearby table, plans for the new Homewood location of The Johns Hopkins University. It was to be built on land Keyser's father was instrumental in assembling. The two passionate men would have sifted through every minute detail of the plans as they worked well into the night inside Keyser's Mount Vernon mansion. Keyser, being the president of the university's board of trustees during a critical time in the school's history, was very interested to hear what Olmsted had to say.
For a historian, especially one interested in the early 20th-century history of Baltimore and Johns Hopkins, the 50-room mansion at 1201 N. Calvert St. would have been a good place to be a fly on the wall.
From elegant banquets filled with Baltimore's most powerful men and women, to business meetings that helped shape the university and city, an invitation to the mansion was always an event.
And now the public is invited to take a peek at this historic home.
Once known as "Solomon's Corner," after its first owner, and then as "Little Hopkins," because of the university activities that took place there, this mansion has been selected as the location for the 1998 Baltimore Symphony Decorators' Show House, which will open April 19, and can be visited through May 17.
Although the interior configuration of the house has changed some from its early days--it was converted into doctors' offices at one point in its history--the spiral staircase that bisects the five-level mansion still conjures up images of women in ballgowns and men in top hats and tails parading down its steps.
The mansion on the corner of Calvert and Biddle streets was built in 1877, one year after Hopkins was founded, by Solomon Corner, who provided the first links to the university. Thomas Corner, his nephew and a founder of the Baltimore Museum of Art, painted a dozen portraits that hang in university buildings, including those of Johns Hopkins and Alfred Shriver. George Corner, another nephew, was a Hopkins professor of embryology, who first identified progesterone, which eventually led to the development of the contraceptive pill.
In 1893 the Corners sold the house to Robert Keyser, an investor in the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and the owner of the Baltimore Copper Smelting and Rolling Co. Several years later Keyser purchased the house at 1203 North Calvert and combined it with 1201, fitting the exterior with white marble and moving the entrance from Biddle Street to North Calvert.
However, the tale of the Keyser family's connection to the university begins not in Robert's house but aboard a 70-foot yacht on Chesapeake Bay in November 1894. The owner of the yacht, and one its passengers, was William Keyser, Robert's father. Also on the boat was Daniel Coit Gilman, Hopkins' first president. According to a written account by one of the boat's other passengers, Gilman that day lamented the state of the university, fearing that the Howard Street campus was no longer adequate and that without a new location complete with modern buildings, larger libraries and better laboratories, the university was doomed.
Gilman, as he stared out over the water, said a man must be found to lead the search for the new permanent home of the university. Gilman than turned to his host and said, "Mr. Keyser, I think you are the only man who can do this."
So, up until his death in 1904, William Keyser made a new location his priority. Working with his cousin William Wyman and other prominent Baltimoreans, Keyser assembled a tract of close to 180 acres in the Homewood area, which at that time was considered Baltimore's countryside. Wyman then had the university donate 10 acres of land to the city for the public park that now bears his name.
Shortly before his father's death Robert Keyser took control of his father's businesses and the Homewood project and, in 1903, was elected president of the university's board of trustees, a position he held for 23 years.
Mathilde Holmes, granddaughter of Robert Keyser, said her grandfather--like his father before him--made Hopkins his life.
"He would hold all the [university's] board meetings in his own house. That's where the plans setting up the school's new curriculum were made," Holmes said. "He spent his entire life trying to develop Johns Hopkins."
Keyser, at his own expense, hired Olmsted to advise him on the layout of the new campus. Olmsted, at one of his many meetings in the Keyser residence, expressed his opinion that Homewood was an "exceptionally fine estate" and was ideal for its use as a university campus. Between 1889 and 1950, the Keyser and Wyman families donated more than $1.2 million toward the establishment of the Homewood campus.
Robert Keyser died in 1927, and shortly after his death the mansion was sold to a group of investors, who turned it into doctors' offices. Then, in 1978, the mansion was purchased by David McManus, the founder of Helicon Press. The McManus family resided in the house until 1997.
Maureen McManus, daughter of the late David McManus, said she appreciates the history of the house that was her home and its relationship to Hopkins' history.
The house is currently on the market, and McManus--an urban planner who also works on health issues in developing countries for Hopkins affiliate JHPIEGO--said she hopes the mansion would be the future home of foundations or civic-minded groups.
"It seems that everyone who has lived here has had a connection with Hopkins at some point," said McManus, "and they've all been dedicated to the growth and prosperity of Baltimore."