One of Baltimore's first suburbs still charms Near old amusement park site, affordable housing, lots of trees

Neighborhood Profile: Powhatan Hill

July 12, 1998|By Charles Belfoure | Charles Belfoure,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

People were too busy riding the Wild Mouse and dancing at the Dixie Ballroom at the old Gwynn Oak Amusement Park to notice Powhatan Hill.

But across the street from the now vanished park is a charming neighborhood of modest houses nestled in a hill thick with tall trees and lush landscaping. For more than 50 years, Powhatan Hill watched over the annual German Day Festivals and Report Card Days when children with good grades rode the rides for free.

"People always asked us if we minded living across the street from the park," said Irene Yost, "but we never did, maybe because we're slightly around the bend from it." Yost, who has lived on Gwynn Oak Avenue since 1948, said the only sound they really heard was the music from the Dixie Ballroom, and that was if the wind was blowing in the right direction.

Powhatan Hill is just over the city's western boundary and lies in a triangle formed by Gwynn Oak Avenue, Windsor Mill Road and the city line. To some, the name Powhatan Hill is unfamiliar because those residents who live against the city line call their section Larchmont, and those closer to Windsor Mill Road consider the neighborhood to be part of Woodlawn.

The oldest streets of Powhatan Hill -- which are closest to Gwynn Oak Avenue -- are named after species of trees. The names are justified -- magnificent oaks and maples tower over the interesting variety of house styles. They seem to shroud the streets with a calm quiet.

Unlike post-World War II suburbs with cookie-cutter houses, every house in the lower part of Powhatan Hill is different, with porch-fronted bungalows, stuccoed four squares, and shingled Colonials. This part of the neighborhood is quite hilly. "It's not very good for riding tricycles," said Jillian Spencer, whose daughter Lauren is in kindergarten, "but we have a great place for sledding in our own back yard."

The next section of the neighborhood starts at Gwynn Lake Drive and runs southwest to Windsor Mill Road. The terrain flattens out at the top of the hill and had been farmland. Built after the war, the homes on West Park Drive, Northland and Southland roads are smaller and are more Cape Cod in style, with stone fronts and driveways. Their size is deceiving, according to Kris Turner of ERA-Caton Realty in Ellicott City.

"In those modest little houses are four bedrooms," said Turner, who lives a couple of blocks away on Locust Drive. Many residents commute to the city or Towson, but a large number still work at the Social Security headquarters that opened in the late 1950s in Woodlawn.

Powhatan Hill owes its beginning to Gwynn Oak Park. The 65-acre amusement park was a "trolley park," built in 1895. Parks in this era were strategically located at the end of an electric streetcar line to ensure ridership and thus healthy profits for the streetcar company. In those days, most people didn't have a car and had to rely on the trolley. Many a Baltimorean took the No. 32 to Woodlawn and got off at the park.

"I spent my teen-age years there," recalled Carol Lynn Beatty, whose daughter lives on Poplar Drive. Gwynn Oak was a success from the start. At first it was a picnic ground, but by 1954 it offered more than 25 rides, including the famous swan boats on the Gwynns Falls. The park closed in 1974 and the buildings and rides were razed. It now is a quiet family park.

The corporation that built the trolley line and the park had purchased 400 acres for real estate development, hoping that park visitors would buy a homesite in the county. Tracts in Howard Park, in what is now in the city, sold first. Then around the early 1920s, Powhatan Hill started to be developed. The original idea for the neighborhood was to offer city dwellers who had always lived in a rowhouse a chance to own a modest single-family house.

Now the older suburbs in Baltimore County that are on the fringe of the city are starting to exhibit urban problems. The houses are showing wear and tear, and many residents noted that fewer young children are in the neighborhood because there is concern about the quality of the area's schools. Many people who bought into the first suburbs in the Baltimore metropolitan area have left for the newer suburbs.

Powhatan Hill is part of Baltimore County's Community Conservation program to encourage people to buy into older neighborhoods instead of going out to northern Baltimore County, Carroll County or farther out.

"The older suburbs have a hard time competing with newer housing stock," said Joann Copes, a manager with the county's Housing Opportunities Program. "We have to give people an incentive to buy into older neighborhoods because they have so much going for them."

A community like Powhatan Hill is quite affordable. Like many other city suburbs, a buyer can get a lot of house for the money compared with the outer counties.

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