A neighborhood that few leave

Overlea is a quiet, livable community with hilly streets

May 04, 2012|Jacques Kelly

The other evening, I sat at Doris Poling's dining room table and we discussed Overlea. A lifelong resident of the Northeast Baltimore neighborhood, she asked what angle I would take in writing about it.

After all, it is a quiet, livable residential community crossed by Belair Road and straddling Baltimore City and Baltimore County. Not much happens here, except for the current spring show of lilacs, fresh grass, irises, azaleas and buzzing bees. The place, with its church steeples and old-fashioned walk-to shopping strip, looks like a community out of a holiday train garden.

After a few days of walking Overlea's hills and charming, unpretentious streets, and talking with residents, it occurred to me: This is a place people don't leave. Even after marriages or other life-changing events, they maybe move around the corner — if they move at all.

This point became clear when I visited the home of John and Emma Miller at their Fuller Avenue home atop a hill. John, 88, had contacted me a few weeks before to describe his home, certainly one of the more remarkable landmarks in the neighborhood.

The home has an unusual Baltimore pedigree. It was built with stones from the Pratt Street roadbed near today's Harborplace and National Aquarium.

And from the home's front steps, two blocks from (and above) Belair Road, you can see the Chesapeake Bay. On a clear day, with binoculars, you can spot Tolchester in Kent County on the Eastern Shore.

The Millers' home tells a story about families. In the 1940s, Harry Kemp, Emma Miller's father, bought seven building lots in Overlea for his children. He wanted to see them all living in a sort of family compound backing up to the grounds of the Maryland School for the Blind.

Kemp was a Baltimore Transit Co. motorman and supervisor, and he operated the No. 15 streetcar from the Overlea loop on Belair Road. In 1940, electric buses (known here as trackless trollies) replaced streetcars on Pratt Street. The old paving stones that held the streetcar rail in place were pulled up and dumped at the Carroll Park streetcar barns in Pigtown along Washington Boulevard.

Kemp made a sketch of the house he wanted for his daughter and son-in-law, hired a stonemason and got busy. He paid maybe 2 cents apiece for the discarded Pratt Street paving stones. Some still bore traces of black asphalt. A few had yellow traffic-lane paint on them. They still do.

"We had to haul them here in old trucks," John Miller said. "The weight load was tremendous. Coming up the Fuller Avenue hill was a challenge, but going down the Saratoga Street hill at Calvert was worse. The load shifted."

Miller spent the fall and winter of 1947 helping the mason build his home. Emma Miller and her mother, Emma Amelia, helped mortar the stones. The couple hand-sanded all the wood floors. They moved in on Jan. 20, 1948, and have lived within the 18-inch-thick stone walls ever since. One of Emma's brothers — and then, later on, a nephew — had homes built on adjoining lots.

Today, some 65 years later, the sturdy walls remain in perfect alignment. Some extra stones went into garden borders; others were given to nieces and nephews for landscaping. Miller still has a small pile of stones he never used. He has never had to have the stones power-washed or cleaned, and they retain an attractive light tone.

"They are the same as the day we got them," Miller said.

I visited with Dennis Robinson, another Overlea resident who's never left. His wife, Barbara, also grew up in the neighborhood, on Belmar Avenue. The now-retired Baltimore County police colonel once had a patrol post — Overlea, of course. His son, Officer Joseph Robinson, has it now.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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