"Huge and, alas! we must say ungainly," is how the Baltimore Sun described The Severn in 1907. Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1972, few locals would still dismiss the grand Severn Apartment House as an intrusion on Mt. Vernon Place, but in the 1890s the construction of the building created a real controversy among Mount Vernon's wealthy residents.
Baltimore builder Joseph M. Cone and architect Charles E. Cassell unveiled plans for a new ten-story apartment house in September 1895 at the northeast corner of Mt. Vernon Place and Cathedral Street. The new building would rise to a height of 122 feet, just 7 feet shy of the 1894 Hotel Stafford, a Richardsonian Romanesque landmark around the corner facing the north garden of Washington Place. Known as "The Severn," the proposed apartment house included twenty apartment suites for families and nine bachelor apartments, along with a drug store and a kitchen for room service.
The corner had been occupied by a beautiful townhouse first built as the home of Chancellor John Johnson, Jr., a notable Baltimore lawyer (whose portrait still hangs at the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse) and brother of well-known Maryland politician Reverdy Johnson. One of the last owners, Henry W. Rogers was a well-established real estate investor and, after his death in 1901, his son, himself a well known real-estate agent, sold the property to Joseph Cone.
Neighbors objected to the prospect of replacing the old house with the still unfamiliar form of an apartment house. Building came to a stop in the fall of 1895 as a group of area residents approached Joseph Cone to try to buy back the property. Their effort ultimately failed when they could not raise the necessary amount to buy out the builder. However, the Severn did motivate residents to successfully lobby the state legislature to pass a bill prohibiting development in Mt. Vernon taller than seventy feet.
By the 1970s, when The Severn was designated a National Historic Landmark, Mt. Vernon was not quite as grand as it had been in the past and the apartment building sold to developer Caswell J. Caplan for the modest sum of $250,000. Over the next several years, Caplan worked to modernize the apartments, preserving the original wood floors and tile while renovating the kitchens and other elements. The Severn continues to be owned by members of the Caplan family and is now appreciated more than scorned as one of Mt. Vernon's grandest historic apartment houses.