Rowny dies at 97 builder shaped face of city

G. J.

September 08, 1991|By Rafael Alvarez

Gracyan John Rowny, a Polish immigrant contractor who used Formstone and hard work to change the character of hundreds of Baltimore row houses and achieve the American dream, died of pneumonia Thursday at his Graceland Park home in Dundalk. He was 97.

A Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 11 a.m. tomorrow at Sacred Heart of Mary Roman Catholic Church, 6726 Youngstown Avenue in Dundalk.

Mr. Rowny was nearly 20 when he arrived in East Baltimore from a village near Warsaw in 1912.

Within a decade he went from working as a ditch digger to a craftsman remodeling saloons all over Highlandtown and Canton, including the old Obrycki's crab house on Pratt Street; building single-family homes -- including his own -- in the Dundalk area; and making a handsome living slapping Formstone over the face of east side row houses.

"He put in tin ceilings and that crazy Formstone," said his son, retired Army Lt. Gen. Edward L. Rowny.

"He hated Formstone, but that's what was in vogue then; that's what the people wanted."

Known to friends as "G. John" and to customers as "Honest John," Mr. Rowny gave people what they wanted, and in return they made him a wealthy man.

"He thought America was the greatest, he said this country was too good to him," General Rowny said. "Whenever the tax bill was due, he always said it wasn't enough."

After his first year in the United States, renting a room on Aliceanna Street, working as a laborer for a Fells Point fertilizer factory and digging ditches for the gas company, Mr. Rowny decided to see the great American West.

Winding up in Fargo, N.D., he went to work on a thresher and developed from a skinny youngster into a strapping workman of more than 200 pounds. After a year, Mr. Rowny returned to Baltimore to marry the daughter of the woman that he had boarded with when he first arrived from Poland.

But his sweetheart, Mary Radziszewski of the 800 block of South Milton Avenue, had a requirement: Mr. Rowny would have to become an American citizen before she would walk down the aisle of Holy Rosary Church.

When Mr. Rowny arrived at the downtown courthouse to take the citizenship test, the examiner asked him to explain about the separation of powers in American government. Mr. Rowny responded in detail about the system of checks and balances.

The examiner then asked which boat had brought him to the United State, and Mr. Rowny -- taking the examiner for a dolt -- replied, "The Mayflower."

And that, according to family legend, is what the examiner entered into the official record.

The marriage took place in 1916, and lasted until Mrs. Rowny's death in 1982 at the age of 80.

Mr. Rowny was a carpenter for the old Sun Ship Building Company during World War I, then began his long career as a contractor. He also attended night school, earning a degree in drafting and architecture from the Maryland Institute College of Art.

By the start of World War II, Mr. Rowny had built about 200 houses in Graceland Park, including his own on Youngstown Avenue -- which was intended to be a funeral parlor to serve Sacred Heart of Mary Church across the street. When Mr. Rowny could not get zoning for the funeral home, he moved in -- and lived there the rest of his life.

During World War II, he built barracks at Fort Meade for the government. In later years, he put up small shopping centers on the east side, holding ownership of the property and leasing the stores.

He made a half-dozen visits back to his Polish homeland, several of them after his retirement about 1975.

"He was a very independent man. He didn't believe that anybody should stand in line just because everybody else was," said General Rowny, who was chief strategic arms negotiator in the Reagan administration. "He thought it was inevitable that Poland would one day be free, and he backed Solidarity. He said the Communists just couldn't hold the Poles down."

Mr. Rowny also is survived by eight grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren.

Another son, Carroll Rowny, was killed in the Philippines in 1985.

The family suggested memorial donations to the Edward L. Rowny Scholarship Fund at the United States Military Academy, West Point, N.Y. 10996.

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