She held a New Vision for an Old Seaport
She had all the right stuff to fight the good fight. She was obdurate, wily, expansive, persuasive – sometimes even blunt and controversial. She was a savvy business woman. She made no pretense to being a historian yet she had a keen and intuitive sense of place and history. She was a realist who knew that saving the old waterfront communities of Baltimore meant nothing to a world intent on progress. So she battled to give the efforts to preserve them the force of law.
She was an outlander, not someone who grew up at the foot of Broadway, be sure of that. She was descended from an old and aristocratic family - know that too. Fell’s Point was a pretty rough place when she first came to see it. She surprised even herself when she realized she had fallen in love with Fell’s Point, its waterfront, the homes of its sea captains and merchants, mariners and working men.
When she stood on the second floor of 1732 Thames Street in Fell’s Point beside her brother Lemoyne (JFK’s roommate at Harvard) she looked out on the original deep water harbor and saw it so much the same as it had been two hundred years ago. She must have seen, not the spectacle of tragedy Sophocles saw long ago when he gazed out on the Aegean, but all the lively bustle and trade and humbug of the early seaport and its people.
She stood in a room that was filled with light, built with an implicitly sacred geometry in its proportions and design, with all of its plaster and fireplace and original door frames and woodwork peeling but intact, and she made a decision. In Fell’s Point in those days there were many buildings and streetscapes still standing – there would be no need to recreate history as there had been at Williamsburg. Instead Fell’s Point just needed to be kept and then unearthed from its years of neglect and disuse. She vowed, then and there, with Lemoyne by her side, to use all of her connections and force of will and personality to halt whatever combination of federal, state and city forces then coveting the land for highway from destroying Fell’s Point and Federal Hill.
She was instrumental in founding The Society for the Preservation of Federal Hill and Fell’s Point which devoted its early efforts to “fighting the road”, and then to attracting homeowners and businesses to the area. She served as the first board president. Later she donated 1732 Thames to The Preservation Society. As the years passed, Fell’s Point became a part of the very fiber of who she was and her personal history. And she became a part of Fell’s Point.
In her house at 912 Fell Street, where she kept an apartment on the upper floor with a deck right on the water, there grows an ancient climbing rose of such extraordinary strength, vigor and fragrance its roots must have reached down to mineral deposits of the primeval deluvial (diluvial) shore.
She was no gardener, but no mere gardener could approach those blooms, extending on a vine three full stories, with each one fuller and sweeter than the next, the size and weight of large artichokes, heads erect, their scent a heady perfume. She had not planted it, she did not tend it, or spray it, or feed it, and it grew in the most hostile of environments –but, like Fell’s Point, there it was! And it was her delight (and the delight of many on those years when the property was on the Fell’s Point House Tour). She knew not who had planted it but thought perhaps it survived from one of the early owners of the property to have achieved such mass, spread and scramble, up and over the wall.
And that early owner would have been George Stiles, who was called the “savior of Baltimore” during the tumultuous days of the War of 1812.
He, like Lu, had taken the initiative, when Fell’s Point was at risk, to save it from destruction. He organized the Frist (First) Marine Artillery of the Union, which was composed of sea captains and their crews who were grounded first by Jefferson’s Embargo and then later by British Admiral Cochrane’s blockade of the Chesapeake. The legendary Sam Smith called this militia unit “ my strong right arm” in the Defense of Baltimore. Stiles went on to become Mayor of the City of Baltimore.
And so Lu Fisher had that in common with George Stiles, that she was the “strong right arm” and organizing force the original waterfront neighborhoods required if they were to survive and prosper.
As to the rose, Stiles may have planted it or not, but it is the Lu Fisher rose. That rose and The Preservation Society, and Fell’s Point itself, are her legacy.
Watch an April 28, 2003 oral history interview with Lu Fisher, courtesy of Jacquie Greff/Tonal Vision