Classic Baltimore: The Huge Houses With No Sprawl

May 26, 2007|By JACQUES KELLY

I chuckled at the U.S. Census Bureau report that Maryland ranks second only to Utah in the share of its housing with four bedrooms or more. In the Baltimore of my youth, every house on the block had four or more bedrooms. I never gave it a second thought.

And far from McMansions, these were Baltimore rowhouses, 22 to each side of the street. It was all very compact, didn't gobble up land, and the streetcar or bus line was just a short walk away. As for shopping, we had Howard Street or Waverly and our choice of corner drugstores for a soda fountain snack or newspaper.

No one thought about land-use issues or the environment. It was just the way we lived - generously.

My father's Guilford Avenue house tops out at six bedrooms actually, each of them quite roomy. No wonder when 12 of us lived there - grandparents, aunt, uncle, my parents and six children - there was plenty of space. (There is still stuff we cannot seem to find in the dark corners of that cellar.)

I didn't think our house was particularly huge, but then I got shipped off to school and began getting invitations to friends' birthday parties. I soon learned that not everyone had six bedrooms connected by long corridors and a twisting staircase topped by a skylight.

I also learned that not everyone wanted to reside in the older parts of the city where these houses are so common. In fact, in 1950s Baltimore, many people were exiting neighborhoods with houses of this size.

There is a lot to be said for those old Baltimore three-story rowhouses with plenty of rooms and so much space. Many people actually had set up two living rooms - one a first-floor parlor with formal furniture and a second upstairs with more cozy sofas and reading chairs, bookshelves, TVs, radios and record players.

Many of our neighbors placed their Christmas trees on the second floor where they spent their time during the winter months.

The kitchens in these old houses were not always as large as we build them today. But the dining rooms made up for that - large salons, often dominated by china cabinets and sideboards. Our dining room had wooden beams across the ceiling and sidelights with 1920s lampshades that reminded me of something from the set of the film Sunset Boulevard. That room still holds a good party.

Most every house in Charles Village had a similar floor plan - at least three bedrooms, often more. Doing some visiting in Mount Vernon or Roland Park taught me a fast lesson that Baltimore likes its houses jumbo. Our Guilford Avenue home had only one staircase - while many of those I was comparing had two, one in the front, another in back.

I asked my grandmother why our house did not have a back stairs and, in wonderful logic, she explained that it did, in fact, but had been closed off. She explained that when her father bought the house in 1915, he asked the builder to cover it up. She said that back stairs are often steep, and he didn't want his aged mother falling.

Sure enough, one day some work was going on in the kitchen and part of the wall had to be exposed, revealing our own mysterious hidden staircase.

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