Old Northway tarnished but still glamorous

April 26, 1994|By JACQUES KELLY

One day a tenant in the Northway apartments on Charles Street hung his laundry out to dry on the parapet of his brick terrace overlooking the Colonnade, the ritzy condo-hotel just around the corner on University Parkway.

A phone call of hot protest was made to the Northway's manager. A Colonnade condo owner was outraged that a Northway tenant had made such a gaffe.

The Northway is one of those Baltimore institutions in a state of advanced middle age. One wag compared it to a woman who needed a face lift and a new corset.

Thank you very much, this place survives without both. Nobody seems to mind very much that the place has never been restored, made into expensive condos or tarted up to command higher rents.

There are plenty of people, however, who recall the era when the Northway, at 3700 N. Charles St., was one of the city's more stylish and pedigreed addresses.

"I had to have references when I moved in," recalls Baltimore NTC architect Warren Peterson, who lived at the Northway in the 1970s. "There was a doorman and a clerk on duty 24 hours a day. The apartments were designed to look like the interiors of Guilford homes. I would have been happy there the rest of my life if the plumbing hadn't have gone bad and water came through the ceiling."

Today those major structural shortcomings have been corrected, far cry from the highly unflattering period when the building's boilers were broken and tenants were putting their rent into an escrow account.

The Northway is the kind of place that is dependent on a dominant personality. The personality belongs to Ruth S. Shafer, the Philadelphia-born resident manager who has guided the building's fortunes since 1979. She arrived to help with a projected conversion to condominiums that failed.

On a normal day, tenants call at her office to pick up parcels and say hello. There is no one she does not greet by first name. She has a precise memory and knows the personalities of her tenants and the peculiarities of her apartments.

Jack Foshee, a clerk in the Baltimore Circuit Court, moved to the Northway 2 1/2 years ago.

"This is one of the few places in an excellent neighborhood that is still affordable. I have 10 windows and appreciate looking out over Charles Street. The building has a tarnished glamour that I ++ love," he says.

Other residents marvel at its grand and spacious lobby lighted by tall arched windows. The elevators have hands that move in a half circle to designate the floors. There are art deco light fixtures and plaster motifs in the form of sea horses, sunrises and flying geese in the public rooms that were designed in 1932.

If you look hard you can see the stately columns that flanked the walls of the Northway's former restaurant, a first-floor space now converted into apartments. Many Baltimore apartment houses maintained restaurants for the primary use of their tenants and guests. Today two survive, one at the Ambassador and the other the Broadview, both neighbors of the Northway.

Many of the Northway's residents pay about $500 a month for rent. But for about $800 a month, a tenant can get a spacious apartment that a senior vice president of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad or a leading Johns Hopkins medical school faculty member would have occupied in the 1940s or '50s.

The Northway has 94 units, some so large and floor plans so expansive that prospective renters have been known to become momentarily lost while inspecting them.

Constructed in something of a pyramid shape, the building steps back at the sixth, ninth and 11th floors like a huge reddish-brown brick wedding cake. It is topped by a sharply pitched copper roof, now weathered to a distinctive green.

This staggering of the brick walls creates large terraces that overlook the city, the downtown skyline, the Hopkins Homewood campus and Charles Street.

One tenant placed his telescope on the ninth-floor terrace and claimed he spotted the State House in Annapolis.

A young man selected the higher perch, borrowed the key to its normally padlocked door and proposed marriage to his sweetheart 11 floors above University Parkway. Their honeymoon apartment was in the Northway. Some say they met in the laundry room.

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