Every house has at least one story -- and often many more

July 06, 1992|By Linda Lowe Morris | Linda Lowe Morris,Staff Writer

In the soft haze of morning, time could be standing still here in Fells Point. Yet as Barbara Weeks stops in front of a rowhouse in the last block of Broadway, just before the street becomes the harbor, she sees far beyond the moment.

"The land this house is on once belonged to Edward Fell, one of the original Fell family," she says, "and the first house here was built in 1770 or 1771. By 180O it was a tavern, and there was a tavern or an inn or a boarding house here for a very long time."

Barbara Weeks has only twice set foot in this house, yet she now knows it more intimately than the dozens of people who lived here, worked here, were born here or died here.

Ms. Weeks is a professional house historian, commissioned by the building's owner to trace its past.

In the four years since beginning her service, she has done histories on dozens of homes in Bolton Hill, Canton, Charles Village, Roland Park, Mount Vernon, Towson, Reisterstown, Glyndon and Ruxton.

"I call them house histories, but as much as they are histories of the building and its physical structure and changes that have happened, they are also histories of the people who were the occupants and what's gone on in the house," she says. "That human element is as interesting to me as any part of it."

She spends hours looking through dusty archives, hunting for deeds, obituaries, wills, insurance records and old maps. Often, she talks to neighbors and tracks down the descendants of past owners. "I've had wonderful experiences talking to people who were maybe 70 years old now but who lived someplace as a child," she says.

"They have great recollections of things that went on there. They can give me really personal things about the family and about the family's life and about people who visited or other interesting things that happened in the house. They also are a good source of photographs, so you can see what changes have happened in the house."

From her first look at a house, she can learn a lot about its past.

"Rooflines," she says, "are one of the things that give you a clue to how old city buildings are. The earliest Federal or Colonial buildings would have been a two-story house with a front-sloping roof and a dormer."

By the late 1860s, when the end of the Civil War triggered a building boom in city rowhouses, the houses all had the typical flat fronts with a roof that sloped toward the back, she said.

The style of the brickwork, the shapes of the windows and the type of cornice give her clues to the age of a house.

Standing near the foot of Broadway, she turns and points toward a house farther up the street.

"See how the cornice on the left is fairly massive, how it projects out from the building?" she asks.

"That's real Victorian."

Ms. Weeks became interested in individual house histories after doing volunteer work in 1986 with the Baltimore Center for Urban Archaeology.

She had just completed studies in historic preservation at Goucher College -- a second stint in college after several years spent rearing a family.

"I soon realized I was much more interested in the history and the research than I was in the digging. It's hot. It's dirty. And most of the time it's not exciting," she said. "You're not churning up great wonderful objects all day long."

She has been kept busy ever since she started her career as a house historian and has hired an assistant to help her with some of the research. Most often, curiosity is what brings clients to her.

"I wanted to know who had built this house, who had the dream," says Louis Battistone, an architect who hired Ms. Weeks to study his North Baltimore home.

Once Mr. Battistone had the name of the original owners of the house, built between 1882 and 1884, he found their relatives in the telephone book and invited them to visit the house.

Ms. Weeks also has researched an 1866 house in Mount Vernon for its owner, Charles F. Peace IV, who calls himself a history buff. "I was amazed at the number of occasions it was repossessed or foreclosed," he says.

"I suspect almost everybody who owns an old house owns it because they like a sense of history," Ms. Weeks says.

"When they feel like they know who's lived there before them and what's gone on before them, I think it gives them a personal feeling, like they're part of something."

Mr. Battistone agrees: "It's terrific. It's like living in a little novel yourself."

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