For architect Kenneth Hart, making a case for Guilford's inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places began with a modest design: He was working to get tax credits for a kitchen renovation two years ago. "Self-serving," he said, laughing, in his new octagonal breakfast room.
When he heard Guilford wasn't on the list - and he wasn't due the tax benefits that come with a historic designation - he got busy, taking pictures and rounding up facts for an application for federal and local distinctions. He presented his findings last week to the city's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP).
Mayor Martin O'Malley is expected to sign the request this week, said CHAP Executive Director Kathleen G. Kotarba. The next step is to present it to the Maryland Historical Trust on Feb. 6.
If the effort succeeds, Guilford would be among the largest of the city's 25 historic districts, along with Roland Park and Canton.
Hart, a pleasant-mannered father of two, said the bureaucratic homework became a personal quest. He took his boys, now ages 9 and 6, out for hours, walking the streets of the 210-acre neighborhood, teaching them the difference between French country revival, Italian Renaissance revival and the English country cottage.
Along the way, they encountered neighbors past and present, learning that poet Ogden Nash and sculptor Grace Turnbull once lived in this graceful part of central North Baltimore. And Olympic gold medal ice skater Dorothy Hamill is one of its dwellers. Less auspiciously, they met some residents skeptical of their cameras and notebooks, demanding to know what they were up to as they recorded each home's style and age.
"It's a feast for an architect," said Hart, 42, a partner in Baltimore's Gant Hart Brunnett. "So many forms, so many neat ideas, the way they sculpted the land."
So, despite the questions and qualms, he persisted, recruiting several volunteers to help photograph and write about the structures and form a committee of the Guilford Association. Among them were Kelly and Greg Pease, George and Liz Nelson, and local historian James F. Waesche.
Kotarba and CHAP colleague W. Edward Leon said they were impressed that such a wealthy community didn't just hire a consultant to do the work. "It was the most impressive slide show we'd ever seen," said Leon.
Hart's most notable discovery is that the architectural range goes far beyond the brick colonial-style homes that many associate with Guilford. "Some of my favorites are the smaller-scaled," he said. Along the main streets of St. Paul and Charles, he said, "You don't sense the variety of the neighborhood."
The former country estate, then outside city limits, began to be developed in 1912, and like Roland Park, the fledgling suburb was laid out and designed by the rustic-minded Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., son of the Central Park landscape designer. Fewer than a thousand homes are in the official boundaries - roughly University Parkway, Charles Street, Cold Spring Lane and York Road - but Hart documented 1,330, including some just outside the borders, with historic value.
Showing sights in a driving tour, Hart pointed out the first three handsome Tudor cottage duplexes, built on Chancery Square as showcases for Guilford homes on what was once a cornfield.
Less than a block away is Bretton Place, which has some modest brick rowhouses affordable for young families. Shannon Clancy, a mother of two young children, described her street as "a little corner on the edge" of Guilford.
Passing Turnbull's former dwelling, Hart said, "Do you see the wood totem pole sculpture by the white stucco?" The sculptor had left a mark.
Circling around curving Charlcote Road, Hart noted the most valuable real estate property in Guilford, a commanding brick colonial designed by one of the most respected classical American architects of his time: John Russell Pope, who also designed the Jefferson Memorial, the Baltimore Museum of Art and the National Archives building. It sold for $2.3 million last year to Douglas Becker, owner of Sylvan Learning Systems.
Driving north on Norwood Road, Hart said a cluster of cottages dates from 1914 and resembles an English country village. It is the second-oldest group of houses, he said.
Along Stratford Road, a striking pink-stucco and tile-roof Mediterranean revival house is the work of Lawrence Hall Fowler, another noted architect of the early 20th century. Almost all of Guilford was built by 1941, meeting the CHAP criterion of being at least 50 years old, Hart said.
In all of Guilford, one of Hart's favorites is a stone country cottage with a slate roof, a round window, articulated door and a tall brick chimney. A similar cottage nearby was designed with elevated fixtures specifically for a tall bachelor, he said.
With the designation, homeowners who plan to renovate their property in a way that preserves the community's character can apply for tax credits beforehand.
Near the end of his quest, Hart felt an enhanced sense of what creates community. It was not Guilford's expansive mansions, he said; it was the seemingly small touches of sidewalks everywhere, a half-dozen common parks, and other links in the landscape.
"There is a wonderful story that goes with the neighborhood, and this is a community effort to pass that on," he said.
At CHAP, they expect Guilford's efforts to spur other communities: "Homeland and Hampden will be next," Leon predicted.