Lawyer's Hill

Residents Of Elkridge Neighborhood Treasure Its Rich Past, Cool Shade

July 21, 1991|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,Staff writer

In 1840, prominent Baltimore judge George Washington Dobbin bought nine acres of wooded land above the Patapsco River to escape the heat of city summers. He built a rustic cottage and named his retreat "TheLawn."

In her diary, Dobbin's daughter Rebecca Pue Dobbin Penniman writes of her father's impressions of his family's new home.

"It was so closely encircled by thick forest that Father said it was like looking from the bottom of a well."

A century-and-a-half later, residents of the Lawyer's Hill neighborhood in Elkridge still revel in the grotto-like surroundings of this historic area, known for its rambling old manor homes, tall shady oak trees and rich past.

"I just turn up Lawyer's Hill Road at the bottom of Route 1 and I know I'm home," said resident Cathy Hudson. "You can just feel the temperature drop -- the trees are natural air conditioners."

Perched above the town of Elkridge, tucked between I-95 and Route 1, residents of Lawyer's Hill cherish the area's history and beauty. They can tell you when the spacious estates were built, who lived in them and how the area came to be named.

Following Judge Dobbin, two more wealthy Baltimore lawyers, Thomas Donaldson and John H. B. Latrobe, bought land in the area and built their summer homes, called Edgewood and Fairy Knowe.

A short history of the neighborhood called "Lawyer's Hill Heritage," describes the neighborhood in its early days.

"This nucleus of homes became the center of a delightful social colony, the first fashionable Baltimore suburb, still known as 'Lawyer's Hill.' "

Current residents may not think of Lawyer's Hill as a social colony, but they all agree it is a delightful place to live.

"I like the way the neighbors care for each other," said Hudson. "People know one another and can go up and down the road and tell you who livesin each house."

That's how it used to be on Lawyer's Hill, when the original owners gave land to their children to build their own homes. Many of the large old homes in the area, including Maycroft, Hursley Manor and Wayside, belonged to Dobbin descendants.

Lawyer's Hill residents are proud of the history associated with the area, particularly during the Civil War, when the founding families were dividedin their loyalties.

In her diary, Penniman explains how they handled the dilemma.

"As our neighborhood was almost equally divided in sentiment, and feeling ran high, we all determined never to let thequestion of the North and South be discussed among us -- a most wisedecision, which left us at the end of the war as good friends as ever."

Penniman also writes that her parents gave food to hungry Southern soldiers. And Lawyer's Hill folklore has it that

Dr. James Hill, an Episcopal bishop who lived in an estate named Claremont, builta tunnel in his basement that led to the B&O railroad and helped slaves escape to the north. However, the current owner of Claremont, Dr.Paul Meyer, has seen no evidence of an underground railroad route.

Residents say it's not uncommon to see Civil War buffs in the area with metal detectors, searching for coins, belt buckles and other warrelics left behind by encamped regiments.

Resident and local historian Helen Voris uses half a cannonball as her doorstop.

During the Depression some Hill residents found it too expensive to maintain two homes, and some of the summer cottages were closed. After World War II some properties were divided into smaller lots.

Despite these changes, the neighborhood has managed to retain the flavor of another era. Many residents moved to their summer homes year round and families stayed for generations.

"The neighborhood is somewhat uniquein that most of the people that live in the area live here for a long time," said Tom Ziemus, who is restoring Hursley Manor.

Ziemus also holds the distinction of being president of the Elkridge AssemblyRooms.

Built in 1870 and known as "the Hall" among residents,it was the site of poetry readings, dances and neighborhood-produced plays, and the annual July 4 picnic.

Inside the brown-shingled structure with rust painted trim, playbills that are decades old decorate the walls.

In recent years residents raised $10,000 to repair the hall, which had deteriorated. The new roof was completed last month anda new side deck was finished in time for this year's July 4 picnic.

Residents have begun monthly pot-luck suppers at the hall and feature a speaker.

Another significant restoration is under way at "The Lawn," the only original estate still standing.

Richard and Jan Menear fell in love with the house when they rented the top floor in the mid-1970s.

They didn't hesitate when they had a chance to buy it in 1985.

Only half-joking, Jan Menear says it will be another 40 years before they restore the house to their satisfaction.

"Sometimes it's overwhelming, and I wonder what have I gotten into. But I love it, I wouldn't live anywhere else," Menear said. "We wanted something unique and different and we certainly found it."

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