`An oasis in the middle of the city'


In quiet Oakenshawe, nice large homes rise from lush greenery

June 13, 1999|By Charles Belfoure | Charles Belfoure,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When Guilford first opened in 1915, there were some people who wanted to live in the new, affluent suburb, but didn't want the upkeep of a large property.

In 1917, they got their wish. Buyers could get a three-story rowhouse with nine rooms and two baths in Oakenshawe, a development directly south of Guilford.

It's still the reason the homes of Oakenshawe are so popular.

"I have a house as big as those in Roland Park and Mount Washington without the headache of keeping up the property," said Laurie Feinberg, a resident of University Place.

The 300 homes in Oakenshawe, a 10-acre wedge between University Parkway, Calvert Street, Southway and Calvin Avenue, are deceptive. From the street, they appear very modest, but inside one will discover five bedrooms along with large, well-proportioned rooms.

"Visitors are always amazed at how spacious the homes are," said Matthew Mosca. "Most homes have three bedrooms and a bath on the second floor and two on the third with another bath."

The key to all this extra room is the 20- to 25-foot width of the houses and the third floor, which is under the steeply pitched slate roof.

Instead of rooms with a cramped, attic-like feel, they have 10-foot ceilings. Dormers cut into the roof bring a great deal of light and air into the bedrooms.

"The houses are extraordinarily well built," said Mosca, a consultant on historic paint finishes. "A house inspector who was recently inspecting an Oakenshawe home said that with the materials in one of these homes, they could build three new ones today," Mosca added. He also explained that the original interiors had white Colonial Revival trim and were wallpapered. They came with mahogany doors and hardwood floors.

For all of the above reasons, Oakenshawe is a hidden gem. With many owners having been there for 30 years or more, houses don't come on the market all that often. When one does, it usually sells quickly.

Betty Coulson, a resident and agent with Chase Fitzgerald Realty, recently sold a home after it had been on the market two days.

"This neighborhood is an oasis in the middle of the city," explained Coulson, a resident since 1961. "It's quieter than some expensive developments in the county." Few people have heard of Oakenshawe, but when people discover it, they usually want to buy there, Coulson said.

Prices can range from $100,000 to $127,000 for a three-story home, while two-story, three-bedroom homes have been averaging around $75,000.

Aside from the spaciousness of the houses, it's the location and convenience of Oakenshawe that appeal to buyers.

"We're all active urbanites, and there's a vast array of things to do on foot," Mosca said.

"You can walk to the Baltimore Museum of Art, concerts at Shriver Hall at Johns Hopkins, and the Waverly market at 33rd and Greenmount."

But perhaps the most striking aspect of Oakenshawe is the lush landscaping that envelops the houses.

Instead of a block of continuous rows, the development was designed in rows of just four or five houses, giving the initial impression of one large house. Trees tower over the homes and the terraced front yards are usually full of hedges, shrubs and ivy. It's taken 80 years to achieve this verdant effect, according to Alice Rohart, a resident of 33 years.

"When we moved in, an original owner who lived across the street showed us a snapshot of our house in 1917 when it was first built," recalled Rohart. "There were just a few hedges and some spindly-looking trees in the front yards."

For Oakenshawe residents, it's the gardens in their rear yards that provide the greatest satisfaction. "Backyard gardens have fostered many friendships over the years," Rohart said. "A lot of baked goods and glasses of wine have been passed back and forth over the hedges and fences that separate our yards."

Oakenshawe was the name of the 19th-century estate of Henry Wilson, who inherited it in 1851 from his father, James Wilson, a wealthy merchant. In 1916, Philip Mueller, an East Baltimore rowhouse builder, purchased the estate and hired Flournoy and Flournoy to design his new development. An article in the Baltimore News reported that the architects planned to base their design on the English developments of Port Sunlight and Bournemouth, two early 20th-century rowhouse communities built for the working and middle classes.

The design of the first homes in 1917 had an Arts and Crafts influence similar to the English prototypes the architects admired. It's the main reason the houses and the landscaping work so well together today.

The Arts and Crafts movement in England and other parts of Europe championed residential design that used natural building materials and was harmonious with the landscape.

A building moratorium ordered by the federal government because of America's entry into World War I postponed construction until 1923. The next group of homes by Mueller was similar in design and size but had a decidedly Colonial Revival influence in the detailing.

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