The Peabody Heights era of a neighborhood's past

JACQUES KELLY

September 22, 1993|By JACQUES KELLY

A sign proclaims the arrival of the Peabody Heights Apartments at the northeast corner of Maryland Avenue and 27th Street.

Construction workers are reglazing and painting the windows on what had been the SS. Philip and James Parochial School, a curious Charles Village building that is officially labeled, in limestone-incised letters, "Peabody Heights Academy."

In 1917, the year on the school building's cornerstone, the neighborhood we know today as Charles Village was flourishing as Peabody Heights.

How quickly we give up on neighborhood names. Until the Baltimore Housing Partnership rechristened the old school Peabody Heights, the name was not much used and certainly not spoken in the active Baltimore geographical vocabulary.

But the real estate pages of a Baltimore newspaper nearly 100 years ago were full of references to the neighborhood rapidly being developed along St. Paul Street.

Why the popularity? For one thing, the street possessed a new electric streetcar line that stretched from downtown to Waverly. Soon, a neighborhood along Charles, St. Paul and Calvert streets, Maryland and Guilford avenues was abuilding.

The name Peabody Heights was a marriage of the name of George Peabody (who never lived in his namesake neighborhood), the highly respectable benefactor of the Peabody Institute. The high reference referred to a ridge that runs across the present-day 29th-30th streets.

Baltimore's Peabody Heights home was a paragon of middle-class respectability. The oldest row houses built there were three stories high and faced with dressy Roman brick. By this century's early years, Baltimore was hit with a mania for big front porches.

Marble steps, a traditional favorite here, vanished on those homes gussied up with carpenter-built wood steps, porches, railings and columns. Real estate promotions often referred to "Philadelphia plan" houses because they resembled homes being constructed in the Quaker City.

The exteriors tell only half the story. Just inside the paneled and tiled vestibule and entrance hall lay the Edwardian-era interior of the Peabody Heights home. Its brass-locked front door opened with beveled glass panel fitted with a sheer curtain, opened to a formal waxed and polished first floor.

Standing sentry in the hall was a stand hung with the master's wool coat. Brussels carpeting masked all presence of the golden oak floors. Walls were routinely papered with dark prints and stripes, often in a somber rose or burgundy. Pulsing gaslight, or equally weak carbon filament electric bulbs fell on the scene from overhead fixtures. Inside shutters and stained glass windows discouraged sunlight because it faded rugs and upholstered furniture.

Windows were dressed with lace curtains, the bane of laundry women who had to stretch them to dry on wooden frames. Heavy velvet portieres closed off room archways, especially those leading to the front parlor, the sacred tabernacle of all domestic chambers.

Here sat the most formal furniture, reserved for special occasions, such as visits from Aunt Agnes when the Red Seal opera records were played on the mahogany Victorola.

A neighborhood association was duly founded Nov. 27, 1899, the forerunner of today's Charles Village Improvement Association. This all-male, very self-important group was not very democratic.

Women could not be members and certainly could not attend the annual stag banquet at the Hotel Belvedere. And, like all neighborhood associations, the Peabody Heights men often warred with the streetcar company, city officials, the post office and sloppy builders.

Peabody Heights' original constituency fared well, although many of the original settlers moved northward to homes in Roland Park, Guilford and Homeland.

Peabody Heights as a name fell into disuse as the last homes in the neighborhood were constructed around the time of World War I.

Oddly enough, the limestone panel on the parochial school was perhaps one of the last times the name went up on a building.

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