Fairmount Park celebrates 100th anniversary

West Baltimore's garden suburb has about 100 homes

  • Alice Shelton, Arnold Hayes and Diana Kane are members of the Fairmount Neighborhood Association in the Fairmount Park neighborhood of West Baltimore. The community is celebrating its 100th year.
Alice Shelton, Arnold Hayes and Diana Kane are members of the… (Barbara Haddock Taylor,…)
August 10, 2012|Jacques Kelly

A good street map or set of directions can lead you to West Baltimore's Fairmount Park, a century-old neighborhood that prides itself on its continuities and its leafy seclusion.

Located not far from Walbrook Junction and Windsor Hills, this neighborhood of about 100 homes clings to the side of the Gwynns Falls Valley. It's a 1912 garden suburb of big houses with bigger encircling porches. It is so hilly that a front door may be a full flight above — or below — the street. Some of its garages are like automotive caves, dug into the hillside.

Fairmount Park residents say they prefer to remain under the radar of recognition most of the time, but now that they are toasting their community's 100th anniversary, they are ready to tell the story of the neighborhood that just never slipped away. In fact, it shares a characteristic of certain other Baltimore residential mainstays — its children, who could afford to move to other places, return and resettle on the streets they knew years ago.

"We moved in 1961," said Alice J. Shelton, one of the residents planning the centennial event Aug. 25. "We bought the house on a word-of-mouth transaction from one of my brother's fraternity brothers. People say to me, 'You know what you could get for this house today,' and I say, 'But I couldn't get this neighborhood.' "

Homes in Fairmount Park were not inexpensive then. She and her late husband, Wesley Nathaniel Shelton, a pharmacist who owned drugstores throughout West and Northwest Baltimore, paid $25,000 for their roomy center-hall Colonial.

"Blacks were not allowed to live west of the Pennsylvania Avenue neighborhood in the city," said Charles H. Dorsey III, an attorney whose father, Charles H. Dorsey Jr., settled in Fairmount Park in a 21-room house 42 years ago. His mother remains there. The elder Dorsey was executive director of Maryland Legal Aid.

"I looked around the city and couldn't find a nicer neighborhood," Dorsey said. "I could live anywhere, but my father told me not to take away from the city's tax base."

Dorsey recalled when black professional families wanted to move to Baltimore's well-established suburbs. What happened in Fairmount Park was remarkable, given the fears prevalent in the 1950s when pioneering African-American families moved into a neighborhood.

What Dorsey found was that a number of older Jewish families who had moved to Fairmount Park stayed in their homes as African-American families arrived. Some had lived there for decades, like M. Jastrow Levin, a city schools science teacher who loved the Gwynns Falls Valley. He was a nephew of Hadassah founder Henrietta Szold. His father had headed Associated Jewish Charities.

Soon Fairmount Park had a new core group of pioneering black residents. They included U.S. District Judge Joseph Howard, the first African-American to win election to the city's old Supreme Bench. Police commissioners Edward Tilghman and James Woods, and William V. Lockwood, the Baltimore City Community College leader, all lived here.

Fairmount Park was developed by Baltimore attorney and industrialist Francis King Carey, whose parents owned the Mount property and used it as a summer house. That still-standing home is a handsome Victorian stone structure overlooking the Gwynns Falls Valley. The president of the National Sugar Manufacturing Co., Carey also devoted himself to civic works. He sat on a panel that rebuilt Baltimore after the 1904 fire and was head of an early version of the Planning Commission.

He seemed to like city expansion and hired landscape architects Langdon and Gittings to lay out Fairmount's streets — Nortonia, Chelsea, Chesholm, Fenton, Cedric and Winterbourne roads, which bend and loop around the valley and its Gwynns Falls Trail.

Though their neighborhood is not so well known to the rest of Baltimore, Fairmount Park residents grew proud of their cherished enclave.

"You were expected to do well when you came out of Fairmount," Dorsey said.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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