The Catholic Review is featuring Vincent Vaise, a Catholic and chief of interpretation at Fort McHenry, in this week’s issue, which gave me a reason to visit Fort McHenry for the first time. Vince’s enthusiasm for the fort is unparalleled, but it’s clear that his deep interest in history extends far beyond those fortified walls.
I asked him to list the top historic sites everyone visiting (or living) in Baltimore should see, and without hesitation, he suggested the following:
1) Fort McHenry, of course! It’s the birthplace of the National Anthem. In September 1814, during the War of 1812, Francis Scott Key was inspired to write what would become The Star-Spangled Banner after spying the American flag still waving after the fort endured an overnight bombarding from the British in the Battle of Baltimore. (2400 East Fort Avenue, Baltimore)
2) Hampton National Historic Site. Vaise is also chief of interpretation for this mansion and its grounds, just north of Baltimore. He described it as “63 acres of pure awesome,” and a local fix for a Downton Abbey addiction. (Guilty!) Each of the mansion’s rooms is decorated in a different historic period to give visitors glimpses into how a house adapts over time. A lot of the outer buildings are preserved, and it has formal gardens. Vaise recommends visiting at 10 or 11 a.m. on a Sunday, when tours are typically smaller and you can pretend the house is yours. (535 Hampton Lane, Towson)
3) Maryland Historical Society. The quintessential museum for understanding the state with plenty of interesting artifacts. (201 West Monument St., Baltimore)
4) Battle Monument. “Oh, you mean that column with the lady on the top?” I asked when Vince brought this one up. “That’s Lady Baltimore!” he cried. He told me not to feel too bad – a lot of natives don’t know that the city’s allegorical figure has such a signature spot. The column is a Roman fasces with Lady Baltimore donning a victory crown and clutching a laurel wreath, commemorating the War of 1812 and honoring the fallen from the Battle of Baltimore. Keep your eyes open for her image to show up on anything official from the city. Also, you’ll be able to see her at closer range after she’s moved to the Walters Art Musuem; a replica will be take her place up high. (Calvert Street between Fayette and Lexington Streets, Baltimore)
5) The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Yes, that name is a mouthful, but why not? It’s America’s first Catholic cathedral and was designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the architect who designed the U.S. Capitol. Since the Captiol’s design has evolved over the years (and because the British burned it in August 1814, before heading up to Baltimore), the Basilica is the best example in the country of Latrobe’s work. (408 N. Charles St., Baltimore)
6) Shrine of St. Alphonsus It’s clear that this church has a special place in Vince’s heart. The interior is a feast for the eyes, but it also has some above-average ties to the Communion of Saints — two of its former pastors are St. John Neumann and Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos. (114 W. Saratoga St., Baltimore)