'The Baltimore Rowhouse' -- here to stay

July 04, 1999|By Edward Gunts | By Edward Gunts,Sun Staff

"The Baltimore Rowhouse," by Mary Ellen Hayward and Charles Belfoure. Princeton Architectural Press. 212 pages. $30.

''The two-story houses that were put up in my boyhood ... all had a kind of unity, and many of them were far from unbeautiful," H. L. Mencken observed in the late 1920s. "The builders of the time were not given to useless ornamentation: their houses were plain in design and restful to the eye ..."

While Baltimore's rowhouses may have been held in high regard during Mencken's era, today they're under siege. Landlords neglect them. Renters flee from them. City officials want to rip thousands of them down. But just when it may seem that no one respects rowhouses anymore, along comes a book that reminds us what they've meant to the city -- and why they're worth celebrating.

"The Baltimore Rowhouse," by Mary Ellen Hayward and Charles Belfoure, is the definitive story of the rowhouse, from its genesis as speculative housing for immigrants to affordable shelter for working-class families to housing of choice for urban professionals who refuse to give up on the city. Along the way, Hayward and Belfoure show how the rowhouse could be adapted aesthetically and functionally to accommodate a variety of lifestyles and how those transformations helped the city grow.

This is not an overly sentimental look at the rowhouse, however. Unlike "Those Old Placid Rows," a 1981 volume by Natalie Shivers that focuses primarily on the aesthetic and development of the Baltimore rowhouse, this book concentrates also on the economic and sociological factors that made rowhouses so resilient and so well suited to Baltimore for so many years. As a result, it's full of facts and figures about particular builders such as the Edward J. Gallagher Realty Co. and buyers such as the Singewald family, which the book follows through seven generations of rowhouse living.

Hayward is a historian who directs the Maryland Historical Trust's Alley House Project, which oversees historic site surveys, and Belfoure is an architect who specializes in preservation projects and teaches in Goucher College's preservation program. Their text is supplemented by dozens of drawings and photographs that show how rowhouses evolved stylistically. Residents of neighborhoods such as Mount Vernon, Ednor Gardens and Rodgers Forge will find plenty of information about their houses and what makes them so liveable.

If rowhouses are so wonderful, why is the city tearing down so many right now? Why aren't more being saved? This might have been a fitting, if depressing, final chapter for the book, but it wasn't a subject the authors chose to dwell on.

They duly note that the popularity of the rowhouse waned after World War II, with the proliferation of suburban tract housing patterned after Levittown. But they end the book on a more upbeat note -- the federal government's decision to build new rowhouse neighborhoods to replace failed high-rise public housing, and Baltimore's role as a leader in that effort.

For a bleaker look at the fate of the rowhouse, readers will have to look elsewhere. As Baltimore grapples with issues of "undercrowding" and abandonment, other voices are sure to weigh in. By taking such a serious and authoritative look at the Baltimore rowhouse -- and finding so much positive to report -- Hayward and Belfoure have made a valuable contribution to the debate.

A Baltimore native, Edward Gunts writes about architecture and urban design for The Sun and other publications. He studied architecture at Cornell University.

Pub Date: 07/04/99

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