Picture a grand old house on the corner of Franklin and Charles streets, circa 1890, where professional gentlemen in cravats and braces gather in a kind of hideaway far from the demands of work and home. They tread soft carpets and relax in plump armchairs tucked into bay windows overlooking Charles Street. They banter about current events, aesthetics and politics in yellow-walled parlors. They play billiards or cards and share in liquid refreshment, perhaps toasting with the words “Ergo bibi” (translated by some as “Therefore, we drink”) that are engraved on the bit of silver inlaid in the stunning mahogany bar, and nodding knowingly to the rendering of the lovely woman that occupies the silver plaque along with that motto.
In fact, lifting a glass seems the most favored activity in this private club, so much so that when club records showed that the bar was the organization’s only money-making entity, its first president, Severn Teackle Wallace, was said to have remarked: “We were organized for the promotion of literature, science and art, but it appears that our only profit has come from our sins and weaknesses.” Welcome to the Athenaeum Club, one of Baltimore’s prominent social clubs of the late 19th century.
Although the Athenaeum Club was founded in 1877, its beautiful clubhouse had a much longer history, dating to 1830, when Dr. William Howard, son of Gen. John Eager Howard, began work on a mansion to house his family. And though there is no clear documentation identifying who designed the home, in their classic 1953 work, “The Architecture of Baltimore,” Richard Howland and Eleanor Spencer suggest that William Small may have been the architect.
Completed in 1832, the Greek Revival structure was the height of fashion, and its most striking feature was a portico reputed to be a replica of the Greek Temple of Minerva. Marble for the portico’s four columns was quarried from Beaver Dam, but getting the marble to the city posed its own problems. The first column, reported to have cost $1,200, was transported to Mount Vernon in its entirety, causing such deep ruts in the roads that the city passed an ordinance forbidding the transport of any further columns. To get around this, the remaining three columns were brought into the city in pieces to be reconstructed on site.
The mansion remained a residence until 1860, when it became home to the Union Club. This was an organization founded by anti-Confederate members of the Maryland Club (including Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte, who was both the Maryland Club and the Union Club’s first president), and the first in a series of burgeoning Baltimore social clubs that would inhabit the building. By 1873, the building housed the Alston Club, before becoming home to the Athenaeum Club in 1877.
“All over the world the clubs of Baltimore are famous as embodiments of culture, hospitality and good fellowship,” wrote John Murphy in his 1902 publication, “Baltimore, The Trade Queen of the South.” “It is here, perhaps, best of all, that the social life of the city is seen.” The Athenaeum Club was no exception. Membership was extended to gentlemen with an interest in literature, science and art, though the common thread binding many members was the practice of law.
“The Clubs and Club Men of Baltimore for 1893” lists 126 members, including George W. Abell, Robert Garrett and Richard M. Venable, who hosted a Sunday “Sanhedrin,” where morning religious services were eschewed in favor of mint juleps and discussion of current events. Johns Hopkins was a member of the Athenaeum Club, as was Enoch Pratt, whose “spirit of economy was so strong,” according to a Baltimore News-Post article, “that it was his custom to turn down the gas whenever he saw that the members were not making use of it.” The same article reports that “younger members used to annoy him greatly by turning it up again as fast as he turned it down.”
The club thrived at the end of the 19th century, hosting annual Twelfth Night Dinners and a storied New Year’s Day Open House, which featured tables groaning with hams, oysters and all manners of game, as well as a 12-month aged apple “toddy,” whose potency must have fueled more than a few conversations.
By 1908, however, membership had dwindled, and the club disbanded. The building was purchased by department store magnate Thomas O’Neill, who proceeded to raze it and build the structure that still stands today, originally occupied by the interior design firm of C.J. Benson and Co.
Not all of the Athenaeum Club remains relegated to memory, however. In 1910, businessman and local historian J. Alexis Shriver somewhat serendipitously happened by the building site during its demolition and asked after the marble columns— which he was given, gratis, by the builder. Shriver encountered the same issues as Howard, and gauged deep ruts into the country roads when he transported the columns to his estate, Olney, in Harford County. The columns lay on his front lawn for 20 years before they were raised in 1930 to once again support a portico. In 1987, Olney was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.