Roland Park, past and present One-time suburb has brown-shingle charm

August 11, 1991|By Geoffrey W. Fielding | Geoffrey W. Fielding,Special to The Sun

A century ago, Roland Park was a new concept -- suburban living. Today, it's a thriving part of Baltimore, a stable community that looks very much as it did when it became part of the city in 1918.

Such stability, says William H. Wilson, longtime resident of Roland Park and former president of a real estate company that still carries his name, is the result of a strong neighborhood association, the Roland Park Civic League.

The association has fought changes -- both inside and out of the area -- that would be detrimental to the approximately 1,000 properties in Roland Park, Baltimore's oldest planned year-round community.

To drive around Roland Park today is to see many "For Sale" signs.

There are about two dozen active listings, ranging in price from $150,000 to $625,000, said Arthur E. Davis III, office manager at Chase Fitzgerald & Co., the successor firm to the original Roland Park Realty Co.

"Now, driving around you may think that there are a lot of houses on the market," he said, "but actually, the situation is not much different from five years ago. At that time a house would come on the market and be sold within zero to 15 days. Now the usual time is from 30 to 90 days. Generally the turnover is about 50 houses a year."

He added, "One of the [neighborhood's] main problems is, of course, the combination of high taxes and poor public schools. So, you have property owners who pay high taxes and then want to send their children to private schools. This drives some families to the counties, where the taxes are about the same but the schools much better."

Annual tuition in the middle school of the four private schools in the Roland Park area -- Gilman, Roland Park Country, Boys' Latin and Bryn Mawr -- ranges from $8,300 to $8,575.

"But the plus side," he said, "is the strong sense of neighborhood, the setting, the house styles, and the fact that it is not overly manicured. It's a great place to raise kids."

In addition, said Realtor Adam Cockey of W.H.C. Wilson Co., "The Roland Park buyer is one who really appreciates the character or style of the houses. They love the brown-shingle charm."

The neighborhood still holds a 19th century, Victorian charm. Laid out in 1891, the first lots on the east side of Roland Avenue went on sale the following year. Sales were slow at first, but by the turn of the century, additional land had been acquired west of Roland Avenue. Meanwhile, the street pattern, following contours of the steep slopes, had been laid out by Olmsted Brothers, the Massachusetts landscape architects.

"[Roland Park's] influence on 20th century residential planning marks this enterprise as an important chapter in the rise of the American garden suburb," wrote Roberta Moudry in her graduate thesis at Cornell University.

"Physical planning established roads and plantings that enhanced the picturesque site, while restrictions and a policy of integrated site and home design guided architectural development."

While buyers a few years ago were the "baby boomers," today they seem to be older people, some who rented and decided to buy, he said. They are in their mid-40s and much more conservative.

Mr. Cockey feels there is a 30-year cycle in Roland Park. Children grow up there, marry and move outinto smaller quarters suitable to newlyweds. Then, with the arrival of their children, they move back to Roland Park. Those children grow up and move out, and the cycle is repeated. The area is now in its fourth go-round.

"People like the community atmosphere and living," Mr. Davis said. "You just can't duplicate Roland Park, Homeland and Guilford in the county."

Superimposed on the 30-year cycle is a 60-year cycle, added Mr. Wilson. This concerns the condition of Roland Park houses.

When he and his wife moved in to their Hawthorn Road house in 1952 "it was in awful shape. We had to do a lot of work on it." Such things as plumbing, heating, kitchens and shingling over a period of some 60 years can become outdated or break down.

A house like that can be a good buy, he said.

"But people today are not willing, in many cases, to do major renovations. They don't have the time, because both husband ** and wife work, and money is often a problem. Plus, it is tough to get reliable people to do the work.

"But then, look at the advantages. Roland Park is so convenient to everything. You can walk to the stores, to the library, to churches and take the bus if you work downtown.

"And," he says with a laugh, "if you drive downtown to work you don't have the sun in your eyes morning and evening as you would if you lived, say, in Catonsville."

But that is all the past. What of the future?

To take care of that, the tax-exempt Roland Park Community Foundation was established in 1987 to preserve and enhance the unique character of Roland Park.

The foundation, which was earlier headed by Mr. Wilson, has sponsored two major projects.

The first of these was to underwrite a professional master plan for Roland Park, which was completed two years later.

The second project was to develop the full aesthetic potential of the Roland Avenue-University Parkway corridor. This was achieved by planting several hundred trees along the median and the sides of the two streets.

A third project will be the dedication of Centennial Park at University Parkway and Keswick Road at noon today.

The area has been cleared of underbrush, and 25 "canopy" trees have been planted, together with smaller trees and shrubs.

Another project is to clear and erect signposts on the lanes and paths that make Roland Park an ideal place in which to walk.

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