Preserving houses is right up their alley Residents, historians hope to save buildings from demolition

April 22, 1996|By Marilyn McCraven | Marilyn McCraven,SUN STAFF

Cabdrivers and snow plow operators have trouble finding Ella Pope's two-story, red brick house on Booth Street in southwest Baltimore. With the street signs gone, many people drive by thinking it's an uninhabited alley.

The house has no front yard or parking space, but Mrs. Pope is proud of her piece of Baltimore history, hidden behind the larger rowhouses of nearby Smallwood and Hollins streets in the Boyd-Booth neighborhood.

Mrs. Pope's home is one of Baltimore's remaining alley houses, houses state and city government housing officials and many developers consider architectural anachronisms.

Many crumbling alley houses will be among the 819 vacant rowhouses Baltimore is to begin tearing down by this summer in the city's largest urban renewal effort in 20 years.

The key reason is demographics: Baltimore has too many houses for its shrinking population. And many of the city's 9,000 vacant houses are alley houses, which were left behind in the rush to the suburbs.

Not everyone is happy with the demolition plans. Some historic preservationists, real estate agents and others see the alley house as an endangered species that must be saved.

Mass destruction of alley houses would destroy the character of many neighborhoods, they say. They want government and developers to consider renovating the houses for senior citizens, the homeless and group homes.

With that in mind, a group of preservationists recently received VVTC grant from the Maryland Historic Trust to conduct a survey of Baltimore's estimated 750 blocks of alley houses and to record oral histories of current and former alley house residents beginning this summer and concluding in fall 1997. They hope the results will encourage developers or government to at least save pockets of alley houses for future generations.

"The old alley houses are a central part of the city's history. It would be a tragedy if they were all wiped out," said Mary Ellen Hayward, a historian and volunteer director of the alley house study. She writes grant applications for the Maryland Historical Society and has done a major study of the rowhouses of Baltimore's working classes.

"It would be a mistake to tear down all of the alley houses, when so many people are look-ing for affordable houses," said James Crockett, a real estate agent who suggests selling the houses for $1 to individuals or developers who can afford to properly renovate them.

Alley houses were first built in the mid-1800s and construction grew after the Civil War to accommodate European immigrants and migrating southern African-Americans, Dr. Hayward said.

The typical alley house is 10 to 12 feet wide and 30 to 40 feet deep; it has two bedrooms on the second floor and a living room, dining room and kitchen on the first floor.

Baltimore's alley houses have been under attack for years, history shows. Early in this century, health officials called the densely populated alley houses breeding grounds for tuberculosis.

After World War II, the city demolished some such houses without plumbing for sanitary reasons. Others were razed for modern buildings or roadways, including the construction of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in the '80s.

Now scores of vacant alley houses are attacked as havens for the drug trade in East and West Baltimore, prompting community groups to demand demolition.

About two years ago, state and city officials -- in light of shrinking federal housing subsidies -- decided to stop renovating alley houses, calling them financial losers, said Zack Germroth, spokesman for the city's housing department.

"They are at the top of the hit list [for demolition] because it doesn't make economical sense to renovate them. You put $30,000 in them and you'll still only have a $30,000 house," he said.

In October 1994, city Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III shocked neighborhood leaders with the announcement that the long-planned renovation of the 2000 block of Booth St. by a nonprofit developer would not receive state funds because it was not financially viable, recalls Barbara McFail, president of Boyd-Booth Concerned Citizens.

That block is slated for demolition this summer.

Even before Mr. Henson's announcement, some local nonprofit housing developers had stopped renovating alley houses.

In an age of shrinking federal housing aid, "it doesn't make sense to [renovate] side-street houses when there are vacant houses on the main streets," said Ward Smith, director of Communities Organized to Improve Life.

To successfully renovate and operate an alley house project, a developer needs to take control of a section of a neighborhood, not a few houses, said Brian Devlin, supervisor of rental operations for St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center.

St. Ambrose has had mixed results renovating alley houses. The renovation of four in the 1100 block of Proctor Street has been a "horrendous experience ," said Vincent P. Quayle, St. Ambrose's executive director.

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