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Union Square Association replacing Mencken monument

Union Square activists are at odds over the removal of a fountain dedicated to H.L. Mencken in the historic park — and some are chafing because the $8,000 replacement, bought with funds from the neighborhood’s annual Christmas cookie tour, will not be rededicated to the stogie-chomping critic who lived in a rowhouse facing the square.

Construction at the site of the H.L. Mencken Fountain in Union Square Park that is being replaced

“Time moves on,” Chris Taylor, president of the Union Square Association, said of the decision not to rededicate the new waterworks in Mencken’s name. “It’s not like we’re taking away from anything in the past, it’s just time moves on.”

The Mencken fountain was taken down in January, said Brad Housley, a foreman with Allied Contractors, the local company hired by the city Department of Recreation and Parks for the $437,400 project, which includes other renovations. The park is overseen by the Maryland Historical Trust, which holds an easement over the entire square.

“The old one was getting rough,” Housley said, of the metal and resin fountain flanked by nearly three dozen bronze plates illustrating the covers of books written by the Sage of Baltimore over his career as a journalist, magazine editor, author and critic. “It was just old.”

The Mencken fountain was put up after a Victorian-style fountain placed in the square in the 1850s was removed during World War II and, legend has it, scrapped for metal, said J. Rodney Little, director of the Maryland Historical Trust.

It was designed and purchased with proceeds from the sale of the decorative book plates and was dedicated to Mencken in 1971 during a ceremony that drew local residents, historians and then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer, said JoeAnne Whitely, a former Union Square resident who spearheaded the fundraising and memorial tribute.

Since then, it has had a rocky existence.

Vandals have broken off parts of the cherubs that adorned the top tier, parts of the fountain have been stolen and some of the book plates have been damaged. Water had not sprayed and cascaded from the fountain’s inner workings for years, residents reported, because of faulty water and electrical connections.

Nevertheless, the site has been a destination for tourists and other Menckenites who travel to Baltimore to visit the rowhouse at 1524 Hollins St., a now-closed museum that was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1985.

They also walk across the street to see the Mencken fountain in the square, residents said. A Sept. 4, 1988, article in The New York Times about the “Charm City of H.L. Mencken” lauded the fountain as an integral part of the Union Square community.

“Not a week goes by that you don’t see someone out there pulled up around the Mencken house reading the plaque and going across to the park to see the fountain and read the book plates,” said Phil Hildebrandt, a board member of the nonprofit Friends of the Mencken House and a Union Square resident for 35 years.

Hildebrandt said he disagrees with the decision not to rededicate the new fountain to Mencken’s memory.

“If it were up to me, you certainly would rededicate it to Mencken,” he said. “There does seem to be a sense among people who recently moved [to Union Square] that they don’t have a sense of the place as a historic place, so they have a different take on all of this.”

Taylor said the Union Square Association board decided to replace the inactive fountain in 2007, and the group purchased the replacement structure from a cast iron company in Birmingham, Ala.

Because it acted without the consent of the Maryland Historical Trust, the replacement project was shelved, and the new fountain placed in a board member’s garage for safekeeping, said Francis Rahl, an association board member.

The community group presented its plans to the trust, which reversed its decision, Little said.

Rahl said Monday that the bronze book plates, one dedicated by Alfred Knopf, Mencken’s former publisher, would be restored and returned to the new fountain’s marble base. He said the old fountain was simply too expensive to repair — and its vulnerable composition of metal and resin made its future uncertain because of the fear of repeat vandalism.

He said the decision to buy a new fountain was controversial among many residents of the West Baltimore community. The old fountain is in a storage house at the square and may be relocated to Franklin Square, about one mile away.

The new fountain is to be installed and dedicated this spring.

“You cannot desecrate Mencken,” Rahl said of the journalist who died on Jan. 29, 1956, at age 75. “He is probably chuckling somewhere at the politics that’s going on.”

The sage, a former reporter at The Evening Sun, perhaps said it better.

“For every complex problem,” he once said, “there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.”