Architect tells of boom years in city's growth

April 25, 1995|By JACQUES KELLY

Baltimore winces when the statisticians report yet another drop in population.

The opposite was the norm 160 years ago, when the city's population was doubling decade by decade.

I recently spent an afternoon with Michael F. Trostel, one of the city's most respected restoration architects, who shed light on the first century of Baltimore's growth.

As we moan and wail about the city's condition today, it is interesting to compare Baltimore's transformation from a tiny village in 1750 to a bustling city in 1850. Far from losing population, the city was ballooning. Beginning in 1790, each 10-year span saw a 100 percent population increase until the 1830s, when the growth began to slow, changing from rapid to moderate growth.

These were boom years for Baltimore. The more prominent of the city's streets were filling up with urban mansions, decorated with the latest in architectural fashion. Stylishness had its whims, its likes and obsessions. Just walk along an old street and note the exuberant iron work on the balconies and front steps.

Then came the tone of the Cathedral Hill-Mount Vernon district. How soon we forget the high styles of the streets named Saratoga, Pleasant, Mulberry, Franklin, Centre and Cathedral.

The great aristocratic families have moved on. Their homes razed for parking lots. Their quiet streets made into cross-town arteries.

Baltimore's seaport, and later its railroads, produced families who could afford to build impressive country villas, perhaps a mile or two out of town, removed from the worst of the summer's heat and outbreaks of dreaded cholera.

One of the great country estates was Mondawmin (on some of its lands stands the Northwest Baltimore shopping center of the same name, at Gwynns Falls Parkway and Reisterstown Road). The house named Mondawmin stood until the early 1950s.

The Mondawmin house caught the attention of the budding architect Trostel when he was a student at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute and living in Forest Park. While riding the No. 32 Liberty Heights Avenue streetcar to Poly, he observed this majestic showplace.

"If you looked out the streetcar, you could just make out the house. There was a high green fence around the property. You couldn't see much at all. There was a little space between each board in the fence and it was like watching a little moving picture as each frame went by," he said.

When the wreckers moved in more than 40 years ago to build the shopping center, Trostel again visited the place. The experience stayed with him and recently he began to research the Mondawmin story.

Trostel reports that Mondawmin was the creation of Dr. Patrick Macaulay, who was born in Yorktown, Va., in 1791. He moved here, studied with the Sulpician priests at the old St. Mary's College in Seton Hill, and went on to the University of Pennsylvania to study medicine.

He practiced as a physician in Baltimore, and published a number of articles on medical subjects, such as bloodletting and yellow fever. Mondawmin came in 1841.

"The house was one of the most refined examples of Greek revival architecture in the Baltimore area," Trostel said.

A large conservatory looked out from one end of the house. Carriages drove up to its front door and deposited their riders under a porte-cochere, a far different use from the acres of parking lot asphalt on the site today.

Dr. Macauley spared nothing on his carefully tended flower gardens and lush fields.

Tradition says that an early visitor to this showplace was poet and writer Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The host commented that he had not named his new estate, and the poet suggested Mondawmin, a name meaning "the spirit of corn."

The next owner was the Brown family, George and later Alexander, of the investment banking firm. The last Brown to live there died in 1949.

Trostel believes Mondawmin was the work of Baltimore architect Robert Cary Long Jr. He also notes the house is one of three architectural siblings, each of the same design -- Dumbarton, still standing off Stevenson Lane in Baltimore County; and the large city house at 2 W. Madison St., an address known as the Park Plaza, home today of Donna's restaurant.

As for Mondawmin, it was razed. An ornamental marble fountain in the formal gardens was saved and taken to Frederick County.

The estate's name lived on, preserved in the 1956 shopping center and retained in the memories of those who can still sing its original radio-television jingle: "Mondawmin, Mondawmin, a better shopping day is dawnin'."

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