A Hammett anniversary run
I have enjoyed a run through some of the Baltimore sites related to famous mystery author Dashiell Hammett, just in time for the 50th anniversary of his death, which will be Monday. Here's how it goes:
I start my Saturday run at the Baltimore Sun headquarters. While Hammett mentions newspapers frequently in his stories, I have to admit that I'm just beginning here because it's the easiest place to start.
The first stop of any real relevance on my run is a building at the southeast corner of Calvert and Baltimore streets. Currently used for a variety of purposes, including an HR office for the city, it was once the home of Baltimore's Pinkerton bureau. Hammett's years as a Pinkerton detective would be vital when he started writing mysteries. In addition, golden figures of birds that adorn the building -- several smaller ones around the structure and two large ones at the entrance -- are thought to be the basis for what main character Sam Spade calls "the dingus" in The Maltese Falcon.
From there, it's only a couple of blocks down Baltimore Street to the old B&O building, which still holds a magnificent sculpture over its main entrance. Two figures flank the globe, showing just how highly the railroad thought of itself. Unfortunately for Baltimore, the company -- one of Hammett's several employers before he could support himself by writing -- was already quite literally losing ground to the Pennsylvania Railroad by the time the headquarters opened. The company would continue its slide for decades before becoming extinct, but the building is thriving: It was turned into a hotel in 2009.
Two blocks north on Charles Street, a sign notes the location of the now-gone Rennert Hotel, which stood on Saratoga Street and acted as the headquarters for Hammett's political boss in The Glass Key. Along with the current politics of his period, Hammett likely drew from his father's political experience while concocting some characters, notes Frank R. Shivers in a book on Maryland authors.
Making a couple quick turns to head down Liberty Street, then West on Baltimore Street again, I run toward Hollins Market. After a brief, unplanned duck into the market itself, I visit the former Pratt Library branch at Hollins and Calhoun streets, where Hammett allegedly vowed to read every book. The building, which is now a Maryland Library Association facility, sits amid a few blocks of well-maintained and beautifully detailed row homes, which are in contrast to the area directly north, along Baltimore Street.
It's back into this area that I now go, jogging north along Calhoun toward Franklin Square Park, where the houses again become more loved. Within a two-block radius of this park was the pair of Baltimore homes in which Hammett lived, along with the Orphan Asylum from The Girl with the Silver Eyes. All three structures are long gone, but the park is still faced on three sides with traditional Baltimore row houses, most of which appear to be in pretty good shape. The fourth, westernmost side of the park is bordered by institutional-looking school buildings.
Running past the school buildings and then north on Gilmor Street to Harlem Square Park, I enter the area Hammett describes in the start of a Red Harvest dream sequence. In what could either have been a show of knowledge or a shameless attempt at regional appeal, he then has his character dream of locations in Denver, Cleveland, Dallas, Boston, Louisville, New York, Jacksonville and Detroit. Back here in Baltimore, I don't see any indication of Hammett-related neighborhood activities, but a flock of about 30 birds briefly brings another Baltimore author to mind before I realize that it's a murder of crows, not ravens.
Hammett's Baltimore references in The Girl with the Silver Eyes were not limited to torn-down locations. The author also wrote a role for Mount Royal Station, toward which I now head via Dolphin Street. The building is currently used by MICA, so it's closed for the weekend, but the school appears to have largely done a good job of maintaining the structure's character while adding its own flair. Locked near the old platform area is a golden, double-height bicycle, welded from two frames into one very Seussian vehicle.
Union Station, now Penn Station, is where one of the main characters in The Assistant Murderer bought a one-way ticket to Pennsylvania. (The whole story took place in Baltimore, so this is a slightly random sample).
While many users would be well-served by an end to the tour at this spot, I need 10 miles today, so I head up Charles Street to University Parkway, then down Cold Spring Lane to one final Hammett stop: The Poly/Western complex. Hammett attended Baltimore Polytechnic for less than a year before quitting his education. Since he went to the school in the first decade of the 20th century, he would have been at the original location, which no longer exists. While I'm always up for visits to torn-down historic spots, the problem is that in this case, even the street on which the school was built has vanished. (For the curious, the old Courtland Street location is very roughly near where Saint Paul Place sits today, near the Orleans Street viaduct. The school moved to North Avenue and Calvert Street in 1913, then to its current location in 1967.)
With that, my tour ends. A quick trot down to the Woodberry light rail stop gets me my full 10 miles, followed by a train ride back to the Sun building. I recommend going with a friend, as the route goes through a couple rough neighborhoods. That may be, but as a way to spend a sunny afternoon, it's all pretty satisfactory.
View Hammett Sites in a larger map
Thanks to Dave Rosenthal, the Baltimore Literary Heritage Project and my helpful commenters for all of the help putting together a strong list of sites.
Want to trace this route on the 50th anniversary of Hammett's death but can't make it? There's time to plan for another landmark: The anniversary of his burial is on Thursday.