There's surely no place quite like the terraces of Oakenshawe

Jacques Kelly

July 15, 1991|By Jacques Kelly

It's best to visit Oakenshawe with a map and written directions in hand.

This north Baltimore neighborhood of 400 families sits on a wedge of land bordering University Parkway, where nearly all the streets that enter the enclave are one-way, aimed at deterring through traffic and confusing motorists.

"We're a little village in the city. Not quite Charles Village and not quite Guilford," said Ann Howell, who moved several years ago ** to a trim corner house with her husband, Tom Hickey, in the 3400 block of University Place. They have a 19-month-old daughter, Elinor.

The tiny neighborhood is a complicated piece of urban geometry. Its short streets appear to have been conceived by a designer who favored packing plenty in a tight space.

The neighborhood's 300-odd homes, on 10 acres, are located on Calvert Street, University Parkway, Guilford and Homewood terraces, University, Oakenshaw and Birkwood places and a short stretch of Calvin Avenue. Nearly all were constructed between 1917 and the early 1920s, and designed by a pair of brother architects named Flournoy.

"Once they find Oakenshawe, people always start talking about the homes here. They are all rowhouses, but each one seems to be a little bit different," Howell said.

She listed several neighborhood attractions: "The Waverly Pratt Library's children's story hour, the Saturday morning Farmers' Market on nearby Barclay Street and the cheap price of Ben and Jerry's ice cream at the Eddie's Super Market on St. Paul Street." Gardening is also an Oakenshawe passion. Summer backyards are now overflowing with day lilies, zinnias and scarlet sage. There's a local garden club for the true believers in seed packs and Miracle Grow.

Oakenshawe's distinctive weathered-brick homes, with slate roofs, handsome shutters and porches were developed by the Mueller Building Co. some 70 years ago. The firm pitched sales toward upper-middle class residents -- doctors, lawyers and businessmen. The Oakenshawe houses sit on really terraces that are often elevated from the street. They have a faintly English feel. Residents swear by the oak parquet floors trimmed with bands of walnut.

The fact the community abutted the pricier Guilford neighborhood was a distinct selling point in the days when the houses cost $5,000 or so.

"The kitchen has a generous-sized white enameled one-piece sink and drain board, a white enamel gas range, a white enameled kitchen cabinet and a pantry and broom closet," read an ad for the neighborhood that ran in local newspapers in September 1917.

vTC For decades, the community enjoyed a low profile. Families moved in and stayed put. Residents felt as if they had a little piece of heaven and there was no need for improvement. The street trees grew tall.

"We fought the Marylander apartment house [3501 St. Paul St.] back in the 1940s. We couldn't keep it out, but we were successful in cutting back the number of one-room apartments in it," said James R. Brown Jr., a very spry 90-year-old Homewood Terrace resident who was one of the founders of the old North Baltimore Protective and Improvement Association, the forerunner of the current Oakenshawe Improvement Association.

"There isn't a workman who doesn't comment on how well this house is built," said Emily Brown, his wife. They moved here in 1933.

The Browns share a love of local history and can recount who lived in which house during their many years spent here.

"As a child, I lived on East 20th Street. I can remember watching the Baltimore Fire burn. My father took me to the Fifth Regiment Armory for a session of the Democratic Convention where Woodrow Wilson was nominated. And I was in the first human-flag pageant at Fort McHenry," James Brown said of some of Baltimore's best recalled events of the early years of this century.

Today, Oakenshawe is enjoying a baby boom. Residents recall that through the 1970s young couples with children were rare. All that changed in the 1980s, when the neighborhood had an infusion of new blood.

Lawyers also seem to be attracted to Oakenshawe. University Place has been dubbed "Lawyers Row" because many attorneys bought homes on the street.

This past weekend, the community's annual "terrace" party -- mind you, not a block party -- was staged on Birkwood Place, a charming, slightly bending way that stretches between the 3400 block of Barclay St. and University Place.

The street was filled with toddlers and parents. Older residents ran a white-elephant table and served food. Candidates for City Council passed out campaign literature.

"It's still kind of a sleepy place. This night is a once-a-year exception," said Lee Driskill, an architect who moved to the neighborhood several years ago.

The biggest flap Driskill can remember concerned a resident who decided to trim his porch with a vibrant rust-colored paint. The choice didn't mix well. Exteriors had long been white and shutters black or dark green. The deviation was all right for Charles Village or Fells Point, but not Oakenshawe.

Within a short time, the homeowner opted for a more sensible cream and dark blue.

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