Strolling tour investigates outside works of Guilford


May 03, 1993|By JACQUES KELLY

Sherwood Gardens was just beginning to fill up with the annual crowd of tulip fanciers when 20 more visitors led by a man with a portable microphone crossed its fescue-rich lawns.

Those other visitors were taking a three-hour walking tour of Guilford, the well-clipped North Baltimore neighborhood renowned for five-figure bills from house painters and tax assessors.

James F. Waesche, Fenchurch Road resident, writer and local historian, led the tour sponsored by the Baltimore Chapter of the American Institute of Architects and the Maryland Institute College of Art.

The tour is one of several that focus on the Baltimore neighborhoods designed by the legendary Olmsted Brothers, landscape architects who conceived the tree-studded and winding streets of Roland Park, Homeland, Guilford and Dundalk.

As those on the tour walked from Chancery Place to Bedford Square and back, they passed numerous houses overrun with gardeners, landscapers, roofers and painters -- the normal Guilford work force needed to maintain these pre-1929 castles.

"I used to worry about functional obsolescence, that these large houses would become just too big for their own good," said Waesche, standing at the corner of St. Paul Street and St. Martin's Road. "But they haven't. People are installing children's suites, home computer offices and health-workout rooms. Butlers' pantries are being done away with to enlarge kitchens because everybody wants to be a haute-cuisine chef.

"My worries have been put aside," Waesche added, as he pointed to a street of impeccable homes.

Many a real estate salesperson has genuflected in deep reverence of the affluent Guilford community, where stately $300,000 homes are the norm. This very grand neighborhood of slate roofs, butlers' pantries, chauffeurs' apartments, servants' call bells, limestone entrances, and oak parquet floors is also a tour-de-force of mature landscaping and never dull suburban planning.

Waesche took pains to explain how the Olmsted Brothers -- as powerful consultants to the local Roland Park Co. -- dictated an economic pecking order.

The largest lots facing Guilford's largest thoroughfares -- St. Paul Street and Greenway -- were the most costly. The smaller lots were for smaller homes and price tags, and were situated far from the grand streets.

Waesche led the group to Norwood Court, Bretton Place and Chancery Square, gracious pre-World War I housing courts where designers sought to provide more moderately priced housing -- but hardly low cost -- without sacrificing their almighty aesthetic principles.

It was on Chancery Square -- one of these overlooked but very gracious corners of Guilford -- that the first houses rose from what had been a meadow. It was on May 19, 1913, that the public was invited to inspect the results of two years' worth of road construction, sewer work and landscaping. Most of the 336-acre neighborhood would be completed within 25 years.

This was not so much a pilgrimage through beautiful homes -- in fact, none was visited -- but an event to explain Guilford's landscaping and infrastructure.

The Olmsteds occasionally buried streams -- Sumwalk Run -- in a sewer.

They placed an electric streetcar line on St. Paul Street.

They tucked private parks behind certain homes because Guilford has few back alleys.

Sidewalks had a slightly pebbly surface to aid pedestrian traction.

And every property owner was encouraged to garden.

So much so that Sherwood Gardens -- Stratford Road and Greenway -- remains Guilford's best known public space. Ironically, its emerald lawns and tulip and azalea beds were not expressly conceived by the Olmsteds or the Roland Park Co.

The slight natural depression at Stratford Road and Greenway was once a marshy area and shallow lake. Guilford's creators planned a small community park here, and perhaps a casino pavilion.

But enter John W. Sherwood, the oil burner and gas station magnate. He built his showplace Highfield Road home and bought the adjoining lots.

He created a private greensward that today bears his name. It is maintained by the community association, and has become Baltimore's premiere spring garden.

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