Today, Gwynn Oak is just a quiet park in the county

Jacques Kelly

April 12, 1991|By Jacques Kelly

It happened every spring. A small ad appeared in the newspapers: "Gwynn Oak Park opens today. Maryland's finest family playground."

The amusement mecca, which opened in the 1890s and died a slow death in the mid-1970s, began as a picnic grove on Gwynns Falls, between Howard Park in the city and Woodlawn in Baltimore County. Today, minus the Wild Mouse, the Big Dipper and the Dixie Ballroom, it's a plain public park in the county.

Some 20 years ago, Gwynn Oak was at the end of its life. Baltimore photographer Ron Solomon realized his childhood playland was going the way of the streetcars that once carried throngs there. Signs of the park's eclipse were all around.

Gwynn Oak's once dominant rival, Carlin's Park (on Park Circle at the place where Reisterstown Road and Park Heights Avenue merge) had closed nearly 15 years earlier. Riverview and Bay Shore had disappeared long before.

One cold, clear February morning in 1971, Solomon walked through Gwynn Oak's deserted midway and shot several rolls of film. His photographic record of this experience is now on display through July in the lobby of Saeno Menswear, a shop in the 500 block of N. Charles St.

These are not especially flattering pictures of Gwynn Oak. There are no joyous classes from St. Benedict's parochial school lined up, ready to board the miniature diesel engine and Baltimore and Ohio coaches that once ran here. The nuns who accompanied the classes found time for a ride on the Ferris wheel. It was quite a sight, the nuns' long black veils flapping in the breeze.

Solomon's camera catches a crumbling, seedy Gwynn Oak, a tawdry place facing a dubious future. His photos document the empty Dixie Ballroom, a boat dock in disrepair and a deserted Rifleman shooting gallery. Everything needs a coat of paint.

Yet the pictures bring it all back. The neon tubing forming the words "Laff in the Dark" on the fun house. The whirling caterpillar ride. The Dodgem cars, which always smelled of grease and electrical wiring. The sign that says that children under 12 are not allowed on the Big Dipper roller-coaster. The stands which sold french fries. The Kiddieland. The rusty Coca-Cola signs.

The park is dingy in the off-season. This is not a perfect park designed by Walt Disney. The trees seem to be growing randomly around the frozen custard and nickel-toss booths.

Some say Gwynn Oak never recovered from the demise of the No. 32 streetcar line, which ran to the park, in 1955. During the early 1960s, the park's owners refused to admit blacks. There were protests. After some tense weeks, the park opened to all.

By the 1970s, the park had only a few seasons left. The rides were getting old and the public's tastes were changing. The bank that held a mortgage on the place foreclosed. Eventually, Baltimore County bought the property, one of the inexorable steps that led to Gwynn Oak's present status as a passive public park.

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