Sarah Achenbach and Bill McAllenOn June 21, 1941, Jim Bready, an Army private stationed at Edgewood Arsenal, rode his bike to the Govans branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, walked in and mumbled something to the teenage girl behind the desk. Her name was Mary Hortop, and she and Bready, a now-retired longtime Sun editor, got married less than two years later. Each year since, on June 21, the couple— and more recently Jim alone, because Mary has health problems— pay a visit to the site at which their two paths crossed.

The Breadys’ tale is just one of many stories contained in the book “Spirit of Place: Baltimore’s Favorite Spaces,” by Sarah Achenbach and Bill McAllen. Part fine-art photography, part oral history, the book is an expansion of an article that originally appeared in the December 2004 issue of Style. For that article, Achenbach called on 12 city dwellers, from a U.S. mail carrier to an antiques dealer, and posed a simple question: What’s your favorite building and why?

“There would be a gut reaction and the words would just flow out,” says Achenbach. “People understood immediately what we were asking.”

Some marveled at a building’s design, but most told stories of longing, grief, joy or nostalgia that were less about a building’s architectural history than the respondent’s personal history. Realtor Thomas J. Mooney IV recalls shooting paper clips from a rubber band slingshot on the roof next to the Senator Theatre marquee. Filmmaker Matt Porterfield waxes poetic about his Hamilton neighborhood. Former Baltimore City Fire Chief William J. Goodwin Jr. tells of using the twin bell towers of St. Casimir Church in Canton as a beacon in his early days as a firefighter. Rowland Fontz, the keeper of the clock at the Bromo-Seltzer tower from 1972 to 2000, remembers clearing ice off the clock’s enormous hands.

“The people are the spirit,” says McAllen, a longtime freelance photographer based in Towson who made portraits of each of the book’s subjects in front of their favorite building or monument. “The buildings are the essence.” Both McAllen and Achenbach are quick to point out that their book is not an architectural handbook or even a catalog of the city’s “best” buildings. “It’s a love letter to Baltimore,” says Achenbach, a freelance writer who lives in Towson with her husband and two sons. “There’s genuineness to the choices. They’re heartfelt.”

The only condition the pair put on their 58 subjects was that the building chosen couldn’t be the subject’s place of business or residence. Otherwise, anything was fair game, from the relief on the outside of a BG&E substation to the Montebello water filtration plant to a former Hess Shoe store in Edmondson Village Shopping Center.

After each person told their story to Achenbach, McAllen scouted the best vantage points to shoot them. He got permission to shoot Duff Goldman, local cake artist and star of “Ace of Cakes,” with his favorite, the Washington Monument, from the roof of the Peabody Library.  And he got into the Bromo Seltzer tower to shoot Fontz.

Both McAllen and Achenbach are grateful they were able to interview and photograph civic pioneer Walter Sondheim before his death in 2007. “His building [One Charles Center] isn’t one many like until they see his photo,” says McAllen. “We hope the book helps people see the city in a new way, rediscover old gems or places they’ve written off. Because there are people in the photos, they force you to see the buildings differently.”

The stories and photographs implicitly pose the question to readers: What’s your favorite building and why? Everyone is welcome to go to Achenbach and McAllen’s Web site,  charmcitypublishing.com, to record their answer. The pair is considering publishing a calendar or even a second volume.

“There are a lot more stories to be told,” says Achenbach.

“Spirit of Place: Baltimore’s Favorite Spaces” is on sale at charmcitypublishing.com and The Ivy Bookshop and Gundy’s Gifts. Sarah Achenbach and Bill McAllen will be signing books at The Red Canoe on Friday, Dec. 12 at 7 p.m., 4337 Harford Road, 410-444-4440, redcanoe.bz. Photographs from the book will be on display at Café Hon, 1002 W. 36th St., throughout December.

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