Village charm on way to city

Neighborhood profile : Catonsville

Old Catonsville has roots as summer retreat for wealthy

March 18, 2001|By Marie Gullard | Marie Gullard,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Twelve years ago, John and Kirby Spencer bought a three-story Victorian home in Old Catonsville. It was a charming residence in a charming neighborhood.

Today, the home - complete with wraparound porch, turreted north wing and large front windows - is 102 years old, and for those who fancy themselves renovation specialists, Kirby Spencer has some advice:

"Don't spend all of your money on an idea of a dream home without the [resources needed] to maintain it."

Having said this, she wasn't afraid to buy the home from its second owner who, after raising 11 children in the six-bedroom mansion, decided to "downsize."

"We paid $240,000 for our home," said Kirby Spencer. "And that included almost an acre of land."

Although the interior decor was decidedly '70s-style and there would be much redecorating and updating, her investment was worth the anticipated expenses because she knew she was buying into a "small-town experience."

Andrea Camp, another resident, agrees.

"I love the stability [of Old Catonsville], especially for raising kids," she said. "This is a small town - not a suburb. Yet there is easy accessibility to Baltimore, Washington."

This, more than anything, is the story of Old Catonsville, the neighborhood at the core of the greater Catonsville area - bounded by Edmondson Avenue to the north, Frederick Road to the south, Melvin Avenue to the east and the No. 8 Trail to the west.

Catonsville's growth began in the late 18th century when Richard Caton, son-in-law to Charles Carroll, developed a tract of Carroll's land along a country road that would become Route 144, better known as Frederick Road.

By 1840, the town was a popular rest stop for those traveling between Baltimore City and the Ellicott family's Patapsco River flour mill.

Businessmen were soon attracted to the area and developed a small community of variety stores that would serve not only the travelers but also a fast growing number of residents, predominantly of Irish, German, French and African-American descent.

The late 1800s paint a picture of a diverse community, as reflected in the various denominations of its newly established churches. During this time, wealthy Baltimore families fled the summer heat of the city and built large estates as seasonal retreats. Their presence afforded additional employment opportunities for both black and white working-class residents.

Catonsville continued to thrive as many summer vacationers became full-time residents. The Catonsville Short Line Railroad was established in 1884, and an electric trolley line was built in the 1890s. Both served to better connect the growing town with the city.

Catonsville residents managed to stave off annexation attempts by Baltimore City, and the early 1900s saw further expansion with the building of schools and houses both palatial and cottage-like.

Today, little has changed architecturally from the village of the 1920s. Now the Baltimore Beltway, whooshing through and underneath the east end of town, leaves only memories of a now-defunct streetcar line. The town's vibrancy as a distinct modern suburb - with small-village charm, diversity and history - remains, as do the beautiful and diverse housing styles on tree-lined streets.

Meg Christian and Marybeth Browhawn of the Catonsville office of O'Conor, Piper & Flynn ERA are kept busy with the demand for property in an area that basically covers the north and south side of Frederick Road between exit 13 of the Baltimore Beltway and South Rolling Road.

"This is a very hot market. With such tremendous demand, we list and sell properties simultaneously," Browhawn said. "There is an incredible diversity in both style and price range. Starter homes begin in the $140,000s and include ranchers and Cape Cods that were built in the 1940s and 1950s."

She added that older homes in Old Catonsville can run from $175,000 to $400,000 for styles ranging from American four-squares to bungalows and Victorians built between the 1800s and the 1930s.

Spencer and Camp are active members of the Old Catonsville Neighborhood Association and are working to have the area placed on the Baltimore County historic landmarks list and the National Register of Historic Places.

Noting incentives such as tax credits and home appreciation that usually come with historic status, Spencer is optimistic that the two of them will gain the 75 percent neighborhood approval necessary to make it happen.

For Spencer, Old Catonsville's village way of life is well worth maintaining, a bastion of an older, gentler time. And that's why she sees homebuyers "giving up new homes and space to come back to a sense of community."

Old Catonsville

ZIP code: 21228

Commuting time to downtown Baltimore: 20 minutes

Public schools: Hillcrest Elementary, Catonsville Middle, Catonsville High School

Shopping: The Village of Catonsville, Security Square Mall, Westview Mall, Main Street in Ellicott City, The Mall in Columbia

Homes currently on market: 1

Average listing price: $218,591 *

Average sale price: $216,916 *

Average days on market: 63 *

Sale price as percentage of listing price: 99.23% ** Based on 12 sales in the past 12 months as compiled by Metropolitan Regional Information Systems Inc.

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