Gracious, affordable and newly historic Original Northwood nestles in loveliness under a cool canopy

Neighborhood Profile: Original Northwood

August 16, 1998|By Charles Belfoure | Charles Belfoure,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

In its advertisement in the June 6, 1931, edition of The Sun, the Roland Park Co. announced that 22 families had purchased homes in the new Northwood development since it opened in January of that year.

"Northwood is quickly emerging from the disorder of a new development into the beauty and picturesqueness that characterizes our other developments," the advertisement stated. Those first 22 families probably felt lucky to be able to afford a home during the Great Depression. Little did they know that they had chosen to live in a neighborhood that 67 years later would be honored as a brilliant example of planned residential development of pre-World War II America.

Today's residents of Original Northwood received word June 15 from the National Park Service that the neighborhood is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

"There's a great deal of satisfaction in the neighborhood," noted Dean Wagner, a resident who was instrumental in putting together the nomination for the Register. "The phrase 'historic district' is becoming part of everyday, normal conversation," he said.

"It's an outstanding work of architecture and planning, and it expands the scope of what's historic in Baltimore, especially something that's residential but not rowhousing," said Eddie Leon, of the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation.

"The board of governors of the Northwood Association will be approving new signage indicating our new status," Wagner added, "and events like walking tours will be planned to promote architectural awareness of the neighborhood." A Web site is being considered.

Started in 1930, the 110-acre tract was the fourth and final development by the Roland Park Co. Defined by Cold Spring Lane, The Alameda, and Loch Raven Boulevard, Original Northwood was once part of four great estates, including Montebello and the estate of John Work Garrett, the president of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. The site was chosen because it was in the path of the northward development of higher-priced residential homes that had started in Roland Park in the 1890s.

The development was meant to be less expensive than Guilford, Homeland and Roland Park and was targeted to a more middle-class buyer. But Original Northwood was still designed and built with the high standards of site planning and architectural design present in the company's earlier projects.

"The development followed true Olmstedian principles," said Leon, referring to the site-design methods set by Frederick Law Olmsted, creator of New York's Central Park and some of America's first suburbs. The location of the homes and streets were chosen to take into account the natural topography and existing vegetation.

Instead of bulldozing and clear-cutting trees, the Roland Park Co.'s architect, John A. Ahlers, sited the houses on hills and tried to keep as many of the trees and shrubs as he could. Although other architects designed homes in Original Northwood, Ahlers designed the majority of them as well as the development's master plan.

"My house was designed by Ahlers," Kay Lietzau said with a smile, "This was the Depression, you know, and architects had a lot of time on their hands to devote to details, and we benefited."

The great majority of houses in Original Northwood are single-family with styles that include Colonial Revival, Tudor Revival, Norman and English Cottage, but Lietzau's is in one of the few groupings of attached houses. The entire group, done in the English style, is a credit to Ahlers' talent because it seems like one great house that fits seamlessly into the neighborhood.

All the houses have a high degree of detail and craftsmanship that is unknown in today's suburban developments. The houses that sold for $10,000 to $15,000 in 1931 now range from $80,000 for a townhouse to $150,000 for a four-bedroom Tudor.

Most residents, such as Nancy Lantz, who has lived on Roundhill Road for 27 years, are delighted with the National Register listing. This wasn't always so, especially when the nomination was first proposed. Many residents feared more government interference with what they could do with their house and lot. Clyde Thomson, who lives on Southview Road and owns a remodeling company in Roland Park, has reservations.

"If being on the National Register keeps the neighborhood viable, yes, but if it imposes economic pressures on homeowners, then, no," Thomson said.

"Being on the National Register does not mean restrictions on the property," explained Peter Kurtz of the Maryland Historical Trust. "People confuse it with being in a city or local historic district," he added.

If a house is in a city historic district, for example, all exterior changes must first be approved by the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation. A homeowner wishing to side his house with vinyl may have to use a higher maintenance material such as wood.

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