Preserving history is down her alley Survey: The thousands of tiny rowhouses along Baltimore alleys are threatened with extinction. Meanwhile, Mary Ellen Hayward is documenting this little-known part of urban history.

February 15, 1997|By Marilyn McCraven | Marilyn McCraven,SUN STAFF

Mary Ellen Hayward doesn't quite fit in America's throwaway society. In rowhouse neighborhoods long abandoned by the middle class, she walks dangerous streets in search of old tin ceilings, hand-carved mantels and cornices with more gingerbread than a German bakery.

She is on a mission to document the varied interpretations of the alley house, a tiny species of architecture that is fast fading from the scene -- and to save pieces of it.

Technically, she is on an assignment from the government. But for her, it's more a mission of the heart.

"What we're recording is the end of a way of life," Hayward said. "It's a part of Baltimore that a lot of people don't know exists. It's a part of our history."

The typical alley house is 10 or 12 feet wide, with a living room, dining room and kitchen on the first floor. Upstairs, generally, there are two or three bedrooms and a bathroom. Such houses have no front yards or parking spaces.

For many neighborhood associations, government officials and others, Hayward's pursuit is folly. Many alley houses -- Hayward estimates that there are 3,000 to 6,000 in Baltimore, scattered from Fells Point to Sandtown-Winchester -- are on the list of 1,000 Baltimore houses to be razed this year. Declining population has left the city with too many houses, many of them dilapidated.

Many see little sentimental value in the relics of early urban America that were built to house servants in wealthier households and black or immigrant workers in breweries, public markets and other small businesses.

Many neighborhood associations want to be rid of abandoned alley houses that have become prime spots for drug dealing and other illicit activities.

But Hayward is struck by the detail and the quality of many of the houses, some of them built more than 100 years ago. She would love to see some of the rows of red-brick houses rescued from the wrecking ball by developers who could renovate them as housing or for other uses.

Short of that, she hopes to save some features of alley houses for a planned exhibit at the Great Blacks in Wax Museum on North Avenue in East Baltimore.

With little public money for housing renovation these days -- state officials halted funding for alley house renovations three years ago -- it makes more sense to renovate the larger homes on main streets, state officials say.

City Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III is so opposed to alley dwellings that recently he approved only reluctantly construction of townhouses for Brunt Street, an alley near the renovated Avenue Market in West Baltimore.

"The streets are too small, and the houses are too small," Henson said. "Today's families don't want to live in a space that small."

Since July, Hayward has led a five-member team charged with documenting Baltimore's alley houses, starting with East Baltimore. In a couple of weeks, the team will begin in Fells Point, then move on to Sandtown-Winchester, the Hollins Market area, Pigtown, Federal Hill and other small pockets of alley houses, she said.

Federal grants will help pay for much of the city's demolition costs. As a result, several government agencies had to document any historic residences to be demolished and try to save artifacts.

The key agency funding the study is Historic East Baltimore Community Action Coalition Inc. Funds are also being provided by the Maryland Historic Trust and Baltimore Heritage, a nonprofit historic-preservation group of which Hayward is a member.

By the end of this month, Hayward will have visited all 72 blocks of East Baltimore alley houses, recording such details as houses' ages, the nature of the communities and residents' memories.

When her project is completed, she hopes to have the first detailed census of alley houses in Baltimore, including photographs and architectural drawings.

On a recent afternoon, Hayward visited the Baylor family in the 1500 block of Durham St., where three brothers live with their mother, Sue Baylor, 80.

"This is all original stuff, dating from the 1880s," said Hayward, pointing to the painted wooden mantel.

James Baylor, who has lived in the East Baltimore house intermittently for 44 years, said, "Years ago, there used to be a black, potbellied stove there. The streets used to be cobblestone."

Outside, despite the 20-degree cold and wind, Hayward stops to admire hand-tooled wooden cornices. "It's so interesting that even the tiniest houses in the city have these wonderful details," she said. "You don't see a pattern repeated. They're all distinct. The builders tried to give a real nice house even to the poorest people."

A few blocks away, in the 1800 block of Castle St., Hayward greets Mildred Lane, a 41-year resident who raised her seven children there and still attends nearby St. Francis Xavier Roman Catholic Church.

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