Tours explore historical, architectural aspects of city neighborhoods

October 04, 1990|By Phyllis Brill | Phyllis Brill,Evening Sun Staff

When Baltimore Heritage's latest series of walking tours gets under way this weekend, those who attend are in for an important lesson: Architectural excellence is not the only concern of historic preservationists.

The series of five tours, to be conducted on weekends through Nov. 4, begins Sunday with "Formstone: Friend or Faux," one of the two new additions to the walking tours lineup.

"Our goal is to mix tours about architecture with tours about neighborhoods," says coordinator Dean Krimmel, of the non-profit group that advocates cultural and architectural preservation in the city.

Sunday's exploration of a Highlandtown neighborhood will look at some of the successes and some of the failures of the controversial Formstone, says Eric Swegle, the preservationist and architectural designer who will conduct the tour.

Formstone, a stuccolike material that is scored and textured to resemble individually cut stone, became popular as a facade in the 1950s, particularly on homes that had been built with inferior brick that was beginning to deteriorate.

But Formstone also had aesthetic appeal to many homeowners and in that respect came to characterize whole neighborhoods, says Swegle, who notes that Baltimore probably has the densest concentration of Formstone anywhere in the world. Despite some preservationists' scorn for it, Formstone is an undeniable part of the city's heritage, he says.

On Oct. 20, "Upton's Marble Hill," the other tour to be offered for the first time, will focus on the neighborhood's history as home to many of Baltimore's first black leaders. Marble Hill roughly consists of the 1200 through 1700 blocks of Druid Hill Avenue, McCulloh Street and Madison Avenue, and the connecting side streets.

One of the first middle-class black neighborhoods in the city, it has been home to many influential Baltimoreans over the years, notes preservationist Marion McGaskey-Blackwell, one of the leaders of the tour. Among others, Harry S. Cummings, who in 1890 became the city's first black city councilman, lived there; and Thurgood Marshall, appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967, grew up in Marble Hill.

But today the neighborhood is struggling. While there are clusters of homes that have been renovated by dedicated residents, quite a few buildings remain vacant or boarded up. Drugs are a common threat, as is the escape of the working and middle classes to the suburbs, says McGaskey-Blackwell, who has lived in the community 15 years.

Neighborhood activists hope the message of historic preservation will promote pride in the community -- in its past and its present -- and encourage home ownership among the economic mix of people already living there. "Our goal is not gentrification or displacement," says McGaskey-Blackwell.

The rest of the "Baltimore by Foot" series will consist of three tours that proved popular in Baltimore Heritage's first successful walking tours last spring. They are cast-iron architecture, Oct. 14; old and new Canton, Oct. 27; and animal likenesses as architectural detail, Nov. 4.

The tours, which begin at 10 a.m. and last about two hours, cost $10 each. Registrations will be taken on a first-come, first-served basis. Call 433-7985 for details.

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