A piece of Baltimore in Atlanta Rowhouses: More than 100 years ago, a Maryland businessman brought his hometown's favored style of housing to Georgia's capital. Today, Baltimore Row is likely to benefit from renewed interest in the city's core.

Sun Journal

September 04, 1996|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,STAFF

ATLANTA -- In this city of white-columned would-be Taras surrounded by lush expanses of lawn, Baltimore Row stands out like an unadorned cousin visiting from the North.

Lean, sober and flat-faced, the single block of rowhouses is the ++ legacy of a Baltimore businessman who a century ago brought his hometown's favored style of housing to a place more accustomed to spreading out plantation-style or up skyscraper-wise. Call Jacob Rosenthal the Accidental Developer: He not so much left Baltimore as built a piece of it in his adopted city.

Atlanta had never seen such a thing, a row of 14 three-story houses, each with its own arched doorway and white steps leading to a cobblestone street called Baltimore Place.

They were instantly popular and over the years managed to survive the city's tendency to bulldoze the past. Located in Midtown, a mostly commercial district north of downtown, Baltimore Row has been renovated as an office and residential complex, and is likely to benefit from a renewed interest in the city's core.

Although most Atlantans head for the suburbs after work -- just 14 percent of the metropolitan area's population lives within the city limits -- some developers see a growing market for in-town housing. Carlton Harden, general manager of Carter & Associates, which manages Baltimore Row, says that in the past year at least six large-scale condominium projects were in development in Midtown.

If the developers are right, Midtown will come full circle: Before skyscrapers and other commercial buildings took over the area, this was white Atlanta's showplace residential area. Mansions lined the streets, housing families such as Margaret Mitchell's and the business and political elite.

Baltimore Row is a block off the main Peachtree thoroughfare, but this was still prime real estate. A young lawyer named Woodrow Wilson lived in the neighborhood until 1883, as did future Georgia Gov. Hoke Smith.

Under construction from 1885 to 1886, Baltimore Block, as it was originally called, opened with 14 units, each 18 feet wide and 70 feet deep, and selling for about $4,000.

"For nearly a quarter of a century Baltimore Block, with its cobblestone pavement and situated on the fashionable North side was not only a showplace, but a mecca for socially prominent and solid Atlanta families," Franklin M. Garrett, the city historian, wrote in a short history of the rowhouses.

The first residents included a dentist, a newspaper editor and builder Rosenthal himself.

Little is known about Rosenthal at either the Atlanta History Center or the city's Jewish Heritage Museum, other than that he and a group of other Baltimoreans organized themselves as the Atlanta Land and Annuity Co. and built the rowhouses. Six years later, Rosenthal bought out his partner's shares.

Baltimore Block was the city's first apartment complex, and offered the first central heating system in these parts. Like its Northern brethren, the interiors featured marble mantels and gaslight fixtures.

The complex also brought to town this alien concept: "The purchasers leased the ground occupied by the buildings for a term of 99 years at an annual rental of $110 each payable on the first of April and October," according to Garrett's history.

That, Atlantans, is called "ground rent."

But by 1907, "the rather stuffy apartments lost vogue," Garrett's account says. It wasn't just Baltimore Block. The neighborhood itself became increasingly commercial, and residents were lured away from the city's center. It was a move many other cities had or would experience, and in the South, moving outward made particular sense.

"In newer cities with more land, there's not much reason to cluster," says Natalie Shivers, an architect and author of "Those Old Placid Rows: The Aesthetic and Development of the Baltimore Rowhouse."

That is why, despite a stray oddity like Baltimore Block, rowhouses are primarily an Eastern phenomenon.

"You find them mostly in cities where people wanted to live close to where they work," says Shivers, whose book jacket describes her as not just a Baltimore native but a Baltimore rowhouse native. (Her parents still live in one, in Bolton Hill.)

Shivers, coincidentally, recently moved to Atlanta to head architectural projects for Turner Broadcasting System Inc.

After falling out of fashion, Baltimore Block went through a decline. Some of the rowhouses were abandoned and vagrants moved in, and four units were torn down to make room for new construction. Eventually, though, the rowhouses were rediscovered.

In the early '30s, an interior decorator familiar with New York-style brownstones took over one of the rowhouses, followed by a portrait painter, a landscape architect and other artistically inclined residents.

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