by Robbyn Lewis
Founded in 1729 on the Chesapeake Bay, Baltimore quickly evolved into a major hub of industrial development.
Opportunities to make a buck in Baltimore swelled—along with the population—after the Civil War. In the 19th century, immigrant European laborers as well as free blacks like Frederick Douglas flocked here seeking jobs in the waterfront factories, rail yards and wharves. The architect-designed homes of Bolton Hill and Mount Vernon were beyond their reach. Luckily, profit-seeking, speculative builders stepped up to meet the need for worker housing, and they built block upon block of narrow rowhouses on inexpensive land, such as that found around Patterson Park.
William Patterson owned much of the land that now constitutes our neighborhood. In 1827, he donated the land that we now know as Patterson Park. His heirs were less interested in donating the land that remained; they wanted to make money from it. So, they leased the land to speculative builders, who then raised rowhouses on it. The builders sold these homes at a profit, while the Patterson heirs sat back and watched the ground rent fees roll in. Seedy motives aside, the partnership between landowners and speculative builders allowed laborers to actually own their own homes. That’s why homeownership is a hallmark of Charm-City livin’ to this day!
Modest though they may be, the Baltimore rowhouse has a proud lineage. Puritan settlers brought rowhouse architectural motifs to these shores. The nouveau riche of late 18th century Boston and Philadelphia liked their rowhouses snazzy, and dressed up the form with Federal, or “Adam” stylings.
Baltimoreans are no slobs when it comes to residential architecture. The well-to-do paid architects to design stately rowhouses for them. But in Baltimore, even the simplest fruit-packer, with limited means, wanted decorative carved cornices, tiled vestibules, and stained glass—and lucky for us, they got it! thanks to speculative builders like Edward Gallagher (1864-1922).
We should thank Mr. Gallagher, and his speculative-builder brethren for the enduring charm of our sturdy rowhomes. Gallagher’s goal was to build compact, modest, brick versions of fashionable mansions such as those in Mount Vernon. Recognizing the importance of Patterson Park as an urban oasis, he leased surrounding land from the Pratt heirs, and started building. He called his development “Parkside” and many of his homes still stand today.
Affectionately known as “marble houses,” the typical Patterson Park rowhouse was built after the Civil War, in Renaissance Revival, or Italianate, style. They have restrained flat roofs; flat, brown or red brick façades; molded and galvanized sheet-metal exterior cornices, often stamped with neoclassical decoration and dressed up with ball finials; stained glass transoms; and marble steps and trim.
Architectural details changed over time, as building and manufacturing process advanced. For example, when plate glass became affordable in the late 1890’s, builders like Gallagher replaced the tall, narrow Palladian first floor windows with a single, wide plate glass window—some arched, some square.
Builders like Gallagher brought features like undulating “swell” fronts to Patterson Park Neighborhood. You’ll find examples of this style on the 100 North block of Lakewood Street, and the 100 and 200 South blocks of Highland Avenue. On these blocks, the homes present a rhythmic, rolling face to the Cartesian street-grid, mixing round and square bays, roof turrets and gables. Charming!
To learn more about the history of your house, visit the Maryland Historical Society.
John Waters called it the “polyester of brick.” In Baltimore, we call it Formstone, a brand name that describes the cementious materials applied to exterior walls, and manipulated to look like stone. Other brand names include “Permastone” and others.
Patented by Baltimorean Albert Knight in 1937 for his Lasting Products Company, Formstone is so ubiquitous that it has come to personify the kitsch-y, quirky, unselfconscious irony that is Baltimore. In 1997, John Waters, the High Priest of Baltimore kitsch, and producer Lillian Bowers, immortalized Formstone in their documentary entitled “Little Castles: a Formstone Phenomenon.”
Bland and homely, Formstone stimulates profound passions. In some areas, the first sign of Yuppie-fication is the appearance of scaffolding, and the disappearance of Formstone. But according to some architectural historians and nostalgia buffs, this simulated masonry may be worthy of preservation. The Hampden Village Main Street Program states, “While to Formstone removal may also be included as a façade improvement, applicants are encouraged to keep Formstone that is in good condition as it is a distinctive part of Baltimore’s unique heritage.”
The National Architectural Historic Trust has described a case in which a Formstone façade was successfully granted an “easement.” So if they do, then you might consider a historic façade easement that would protect your Formstone heritage for posterity.
Reference: Paul K. Williams. Old House Online Journal
Marble Step Maintenance
Got marble steps? Then you’ve got authentic, genuine Baltimore on your stoop! Marble front steps are as Baltimore as Hon and crab cakes. They give class to our charming homes, and take the place of the backyard fence as a meeting place for neighborhood gossip.
Marble steps are at their best when kept clean and gleaming. Old timers treasured these symbols of architectural distinction and prosperity, and they scrubbed their steps weekly—a sacred ritual. Newcomers—get off your butts! Do justice to our architectural heritage, take part in an authentic local custom, and make a big difference on the spirit of your block!
Here is how you do it:
1. Go to Santoni’s,
2. Get a can of Bon Ami cleanser, and a hunk of pumice or metal-bristle brush,
3. Mix Bon Ami and warm water in a bucket,
4. Shoo your neighbors off your stoop,
5. Scrub steps with cleanser and pumice,
6. Put on sunglasses to protect your eyes from the astonishing glare of pure white marble, and
7. That’s it. By taking part in this sacred ritual, you earn the title of True Baltimorean, and take your place in the pantheon of neighbors who lived, loved and ate crab cakes on these very same steps.
By the way, if you can’t make it to Santoni’s, the bourgeois alternative is to pick up a ready-made marble step cleaning kit at Hometown Girl, in Hampden. That is, if being a poseur doesn’t bother you.
Need a fix of local kitsch? Then look no further than your neighbor’s window. Painted screens are a Baltimore tradition—one that new neighbors can also embrace. Dee Herget is one of our city’s most illustrious screen painters, and has a beautiful website—and book! —with examples of this art form.
Window bricolage is the politically correct term for the quirky still-lifes that adorn some local windowsills. Some have religious or holiday themes. Others are permanent installations with complex philosophies that remind us how fascinating Baltimore is. Great examples can be found on Unit South Curley, Unit South Potomac—or maybe right next door to you!