Housing styles reflect history

Changing: Experts credit a variety of causes in explaining the evolution of local architecture in the 20th century.


Anthony and Michelle D'Alessandro were willing to live with the small kitchen and narrow rooms of their Canton rowhouse to enjoy the city neighborhood's nightlife and convenience.

But after three years of jockeying for parking spots and paying what they feel are high taxes for their small home, the D'Alessandros are trading it in for a suburban home featuring cathedral ceilings, two fireplaces and lots of open space.

The D'Alessandros will be joining the suburban migration that has helped shape the architecture of local homes for generations.

They effectively will be retracing the architectural evolution of the region, from the Canton rowhouses, built to keep Baltimoreans close to where they worked and played, to today's suburban houses with their soaring ceilings and gourmet kitchens.

FOR THE RECORD - The Baltimore Rowhouse was co-written by Mary Ellen Hayward and Charles Belfoure. A Feb. 15 article about architecture did not include Belfoure's name.
The Sun regrets the error.

Experts credit a variety of reasons for the shifts in housing styles, from electricity and indoor plumbing to the automobile and the emergence of two-income families. Historians say the architectural changes have been significant over the years.

"Over the past hundred years, we've seen some interesting shifts in the inside of the home that have led to shifts in the external architecture," said Richard Guy Wilson, a professor of architectural history at the University of Virginia.

For example, technology has helped lead to a shift in emphasis from the traditional living room and dining room to the kitchen and the family room.

"Part of the reason kitchens keep becoming bigger is because we have more gadgets to store in them," Wilson said. "They didn't used to need as much room for things like stoves, dishwashers, refrigerators and other 20th-century inventions."

Wilson said the added space in the kitchen has helped make it the nucleus of the home and, in part, led to larger houses. For example, the average American home was 2,230 square feet in 2002, more than double the size in 1950, the earliest statistics available.

Part of the shift to larger homes also can be attributed to the rise of two-income families who could afford them, experts said.

Builders seized on the demand and began constructing "starter castles," said Walter Schamu, president of SMG Architects in Baltimore.

Schamu said various architectural designs are being used in today's homes, but described most new construction as Colonial revival. Those designs often include brick, stone or wood homes with shutters along with central and open entryways.

"I hesitate to use the word 'traditional' but that's what sells," Schamu said.

Builders say today's designs also reflect a grand style that helps showcase owners' higher incomes.

"In the big suburban homes, people want to impress their friends with open foyers, open family rooms, and nice kitchens," said Earl Robinson, vice president of sales and marketing for Ryland Homes.

Today's demands are quite different from those of earlier homeowners, because many early Baltimore residents wanted houses that used space efficiently because land and transportation was limited, experts said.

Near work

Francis P. O'Neill, senior reference librarian for the Maryland Historical Society, said the first homes in Baltimore and in America were mainly rowhouses because they could house more people on a smaller piece of land. And since many people walked to work during the 18th and 19th centuries, builders built homes near workplaces.

"The wealthy citizens of Baltimore mainly lived in areas like Little Italy, Fells Point and Federal Hill," O'Neill said.

Early upper-class citizens often would own a second home away from the center of the city to which they could retreat during the hot summer months. These detached vacation houses, mostly north of North Avenue, allowed for more windows, fresh air and large porches.

This lifestyle continued until about 1910, when transportation advances like trolley cars made it no longer necessary to maintain two homes. Many of the city's wealthier residents permanently moved into their vacation houses, and builders began constructing homes in outlying areas.

More land available

"As people became able to expand farther physically, a larger supply of land became available," said Charlie Duff, president of the community development organization Jubilee Baltimore.

The "daylight" rowhouses of Roland Park, Guilford, and Oakenshawe also began in the early 20th century, according to The Baltimore Rowhouse by Mary Ellen Hayward.

Some of the homes were semi-detached, allowing for more windows. Others were L-shaped, providing space in the back of the rowhouse to allow more light and better cross-ventilation during the summer months.

After World War II and the rising popularity of automobiles, homes began to be built even farther from downtown, said Eddie Leon of the Baltimore Commission for Historical & Architectural Preservation. That led to the construction of tract homes and years of suburban growth.

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