"A workable work of art."
That's how Robert A. M. Stern, dean of Yale University's architecture school, said when asked his opinion of Roland Park. To some architects and historians across the country, Baltimore's best architectural work isn't a building -- it's a planned suburb built in the 1890s at the corner of Roland Avenue and Cold Spring Lane.
In 1909, The Sun reported that "Suburbs Now the Mecca," explaining that Baltimoreans were flocking to the new suburban developments, especially Roland Park. Now, more than 100 years later, the sales figures prove that Roland Park remains one of the most enduring and popular neighborhoods in Baltimore.
"These planned residential suburbs built between 1890 and 1930 are still desirable places to live," said Stern, "and Roland Park is still a testament to the values embodied in the original plan." His own work in the Disney-inspired new town of Celebration, Fla., picks up many of the principles on which the design of Roland Park was based, he added.
Communities such as Roland Park were made possible by the invention of the electric trolley. People who needed to live downtown to be within walking distance of work could now buy a single-family home on the outskirts and commute. And that remains one of the key reasons why people live in Roland Park today instead of miles away in surrounding counties.
With the introduction of the Roland Avenue trolley in 1893, Baltimore's middle class was sold on Roland Park. By 1901, The Sun reported that "a great many fashionable people who formerly resided on Charles, Calvert and other streets have taken up permanent residence there."
In 1914, a house on Englewood Road cost $10,500 while a working-class rowhouse cost about $1,500. Today, according to Marilou P. Morton, an agent with Chase Fitzgerald & Co., house prices in Roland Park range from $175,000 to $1 million.
Houses go fast
And they go fast. "Some are sold within a week," said Arthur E. Davis, president of Chase Fitzgerald. In fact, according to agents who work the area, it's not uncommon for homes to get multiple contract offers from anxious buyers.
Davis, who has sold homes in Roland Park for 29 years, knows why they sell quickly.
"People have a strong desire to return to neighborhoods where people can take walks and interact with their neighbors," he explained. "In fact, there's a new trend where developers are trying to re-create what we already have here."
While most of today's expensive homes are being built on former farm fields far from shopping, schools, and churches, Roland Park prospers as a traditional, walkable city neighborhood.
The principles Stern admires, such as orderly planning, architectural quality and beautiful landscaping, are also prized by the community. The proof is in the number of community associations in Roland Park. While most neighborhoods have trouble fielding one association, Roland Park has four.
"It shows the high level of satisfaction we have with the neighborhood and how important it is to us to preserve it," said David Blumberg, president of the Roland Park Civic League. Actually a parent organization, it oversees three other associations: the Roland Park Community Foundation, Roads and Maintenance, and the Roland Park Swim Club.
The foundation is a nonprofit entity that seeks contributions to benefit the community, explained David Tufaro, its president. It's also responsible for long-range planning for Roland Park.
A major focus of its efforts is the shopping area at Roland Avenue and Deepdene Road, best-known for Eddie's, Roland Park's popular supermarket. Already an informal social center for the neighborhood, the area will be getting a face lift.
"There will be new seating, landscaping and lighting in what is now just a wide stretch of pavement," Tufaro explained. "The plan will encourage people to linger and chat." Across the street is the library where the foundation proposes a new sitting area for schoolchildren and other patrons.
The other commercial district in Roland Park is its shopping center at Upland Road and Roland Avenue, notable for being one of the first of its kind in America. At the southern edge of the neighborhood is the Rotunda, a mall created from the former Maryland Casualty Co. headquarters, which includes a wide variety of stores, including a Giant grocery, movie theater and bookstore.
Roland Park also has its own fire station, post office, churches, a country club and, perhaps most importantly, a large concentration of private schools -- the primary reason families move to Roland Park.
Gilman, Boys' Latin, Friends, Bryn Mawr, and Roland Park Country School are known for the quality educations they provide. But they also provide Roland Park with one of its biggest problems -- traffic jams weekday mornings and afternoons.
Roland Avenue from Deepdene to Northern Parkway resembles gridlock in New York City, and the community is concerned that it will worsen as the schools expand.