Dundalk's artful preserver History in miniature: A local craftsman is preserving this early planned community, dotted with architectural landmarks, in an unusual way.

March 18, 1996|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

Thanks to the energy of a loyal Dundalk son who has reproduced local landmarks in his basement woodworking shop, it costs just $8 to own a piece of the old neighborhood.

Now the town that The Sun described 75 years ago as "a miniature Roland Park" is miniature indeed, through the handiwork of Charles H. Echols Jr., who donates his labor on the tiny buildings to the Dundalk-Patapsco Neck Historical Society, which sells his creations. The buildings are components of this early planned community constructed primarily for Bethlehem Steel Corp. workers, an entire enclave built quickly on farmland where good planning, progressive architecture, parks, recreation and transportation were integrated. If early Dundalk sounds like a dress rehearsal for Columbia, it should.

"I don't say we've been flooded, but the number of requests keep me busy," said Mr. Echols, a 78-year-old retired cash register salesman who occupies his free time making the reduced-size reminders of old Dundalk and its environs.

He has reproduced, on a scale that fits a desktop or whatnot shelf, nearly two dozen well-known landmarks in and around Dundalk. His inventory includes Dundalk Elementary School, the No. 26 "Red Rocket" streetcar that carried workers to Bethlehem Steel's Sparrows Point plant, the Strand Theatre and the old Western Electric Co. plant on Broening Highway.

His village of Little Landmarks begins with a color photo, which he shoots and has enlarged. Then he sands and treats pinewood planks, which provide the laminating surface for the photo. He jigsaws along the roof line and walls to accommodate the building's profile. If a church has a steeple, he trims around it. He then paints the landmark backs in flat black paint.

The hottest seller in this version of a downsized Dundalk has been St. Rita's Roman Catholic Church, followed by the original business heart of the community, the 1919 Dundalk Shopping Center on Shipping Place.

To the uninitiated, the Little Landmarks look like a child's building block with a photograph superimposed on it. Each is keyed to the development of what became a thriving planned community, a kind of World War I version of Columbia.

Though few people realize it, many of Dundalk's curving streets and rows of sycamore trees were laid out by Olmsted Brothers, the prestigious landscape architecture firm, based in Brookline, Mass., responsible for many of Baltimore's parks and the neighborhoods of Roland Park, Guilford and Homeland.

Dundalk was one of the most ambitious Olmsted commissions here, a complete town with shopping center, parks, churches and rail transportation. Much of the development cost was underwritten by the federal government as housing for workers involved with wartime shipbuilding. Maritime and World War I themes are reflected in the street names: Shipping Place and Liberty Parkway.

Some 981 of Dundalk's World War I-era homes are the work of Edward L. Palmer, the patrician Baltimore architect whose client list once included many of the city's most prominent citizens. Palmer designed a basic stucco cottage with a prominent roof. He then arranged the house in quaint groups along Olmsted Brothers' gently curving streets.

Just after World War I, The Sun described his creation as "a miniature Roland Park a picturesque mass of high pitched roofs and gables."

There is more to the Roland Park reference than is apparent. Much of the actual day-to-day planning work at Dundalk was conducted by the Roland Park Co. under contract to the federal government and Bethlehem Steel.

Dundalk also has a fine central town square flanked by an early and well-preserved shopping center. Nearby are the fire department, park, school, post office and a former library that now houses the historical society. Along the edges are churches, grocery stores and other shops.

It has all the ingredients of a well-planned town, but over the years has lacked the hard-sell marketing skills that accompanied the development of Columbia. Nor has it achieved much recognition. An architects' sponsored tour of Palmer homes two years ago took visitors through the streets of Guilford and Homeland but not to Dundalk.

Nevertheless, the volunteer staff at the town's historical society works hard to get the word out about the history of their community. They give slide talks to social groups, clubs and associations. They hold seminars at local schools. They have small changing exhibits at the society headquarters.

There's an 1880s parlor set from a local farmhouse and a glass case full of Barbie-like dolls dressed as famous women in Maryland history. Another shelf holds a collection of Miraculous Medals, a type of Catholic medallion, salvaged from the site of the old Bay Shore amusement park and beach. Bathers apparently lost their medals while swimming in the Chesapeake Bay.

"We are very community- and educationally oriented," said Eleanor Lukanich, historical society president and the museum's curator.

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