War-era vision lingering over development

Debate: Baltimore County wants to level Middle River's Villages of Tall Trees, but opponents say the housing is a vital link to the past.

April 10, 2000|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

Long before government visionaries unveiled an ambitious $50 million plan to create a waterfront tourist attraction on Baltimore County's east side, aviation pioneer Glenn L. Martin presented his dream for the headwaters of Middle River.

With World War II about to erupt, futuristic "Martinville" would have offered handsome accommodations for the workers from Appalachia and northern cities flooding the area to work in Martin's huge aircraft manufacturing plants.

There would be 10,000 homes, a private college, a picturesque golf course and sports stadium, a sleek transportation hub for helicopters, trains and buses, and dual highways separated by landscaped greenways.

Said Martin: "I want to build low-cost houses for high-class American wage earners."

But the war's end dashed plans for Martinville, as aircraft contracts dried up and Martin nearly went bankrupt. Left instead as post-war legacies were large housing developments, like Victory Villa and Aero Acres, and five apartment complexes, one named Mars Estates -- now called the Villages of Tall Trees.

Nearly 60 years old, the collection of 105 red brick buildings has been targeted by county officials as an impediment to progress, a forlorn reminder of better days. Officials plan to demolish Tall Trees -- home to about 2,000 residents -- and build a park, a pivotal part of County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger's east-side revitalization plan.

But that plan -- which calls for the county to condemn nearly 400 acres -- has run into strong neighborhood opposition, and might go to a referendum in November. Likewise, the move to demolish Tall Trees, first thought to be a simple footnote to the larger plan, has sailed into some rough weather.

A proud past

Judith S. Kremen, executive director of the Baltimore County Historical Trust, contends that the Tall Trees complex symbolizes an important link with the nation's and the region's recent past.

"Those World War II-era streets and buildings deserve consideration to be preserved," she says. "They are part of our county's landscape."

John R. Breihan, a history professor at Loyola College, says leveling Tall Trees would erase an important badge of the region's proud and colorful blue-collar past.

"The well-constructed and landscaped buildings at Tall Trees represent the contribution of thousands of people who came to Baltimore to build airplanes and win the war," says Breihan, who studied Essex-Middle River for five years in conjunction with an academic research project.

Martin, who lived with his mother, Minta, in Baltimore's Guilford neighborhood, was a skilled stunt pilot who dreamed of becoming to the airplane what Henry Ford was to the automobile.

Years before the arrival of aviation workers, Middle River was a pristine area featuring a hamlet, population 161, near a railroad station. Fishermen, crabbers and hunters were the only visitors.

In 1929, Martin was going to build a flying school and hotel on Wilson and Strawberry points for visiting hunters.

That never happened, but when Martin started building bombers for the French government in 1939, he unveiled his plan for Martinville.

But wartime airplane orders forced Martin to turn his energy and money toward a huge plant and runway expansions. The work force exploded, from 30,000 at the end of 1941 to 52,000 a year later.

Those workers, many semi-skilled riveters, earned an average of 77 cents an hour. Martin had to drop the idea of his "air city" and coax the U.S. government to help build affordable housing and apartments such as Mars Estates.

Middle River became a boomtown. Life magazine wrote about the traffic jams stretching along Eastern Boulevard from city neighborhoods such as Highlandtown to the aircraft plants. Called the "twelve tormented miles" by Life, the road was packed with Martin workers who would "snail and snarl, shrouded in gas fumes" during the commute to and from work.

The ever-patriotic Martin encouraged car pools based on the war-time slogan, "Hitler rides the empty seat." But by war's end in 1945, a majority of the 52,000 Martin's defense workers were without jobs.

In the end, Breihan said, Martinville failed because Martin could not guarantee stable employment after the war. Instead of walking across green belts of parkland, most Middle River residents today commute to work outside the community by car.

Originally, Tall Trees and the other apartment complexes provided clean, affordable housing for factory workers at the airplane plant and nearby automobile and steel factories. But those jobs gradually disappeared, and conditions in some of the apartments declined.

Housing options

Opponents of the Tall Trees demolition believe the complex can be fixed up and revived as quality housing, retaining its streets named after aviation heroes like Doolittle and Rickenbacker.

The Maryland Historical Trust will conduct a review of Tall Trees -- a process that can take several weeks or much longer.

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