I spent a good part of the winter holidays researching the history of vacancy, demolition and salvage in Baltimore. When local builders tore down many of the city’s earliest homes in the decades after the Civil War, it is likely that laborers salvaged bricks and metal for reuse or resale. The January 1891 demolition of Tusculum, however, stood out as an early example of salvage for sentiment rather than simple material utility:
“‘Gwynn’s Folly,’ the quaint but pretentious little building of classic architecture which stood for years in Bank lane, between St. Paul and Calvert streets, has disappeared before the march of modern improvement, and nothing now marks the spot where it stood but a pile of rubbish and the five stately elms that for nearly a century had guarded it… The ancient edifice had a warm place in the hearts of many a white-haired Baltimoreans, and pieces of its mantel-pieces and bits of its woodwork were eagerly gathered up for souvenirs… About 1830 the improvements of the neighborhood shut in and hid the ‘Tusculum’ and converted Bank lane into an alley… For a number of years past a family of colored people have made the noted Tusculum their home.”
William Gwynn, newspaper owner and editor, commissioned architect Robert Carey Long to design and build Tusculum around 1820. Gwynn hosted meetings of a group that became known as the Delphian Club up through the 1830s. Carleton Jones described a typical scene in a 1991 article:
“On the right night, visitors to Tusculum’s part of town (just northwest of Calvert and Baltimore streets) can hear sounds of revelry within the mansion. Inside, you are likely to find an all-male gang of revelers that makes up the closest Baltimore ever came to having a literary club in the style of new and old England. Gwynn brings them together around the tobacco canisters and the punch bowls and they are hoisting toasts merrily here and there. For a time, they even run their own literary journal.
In the crowd occasionally is Harvard College luminary Jared Sparks, who had come to Baltimore to be ordained at the famous Unitarian service where William Ellery Channing would define Unitarian faith. Also among Tusculum habitues are two men destined to write the verses to two of the most immortal clinkers of 19th century sentimental song: Sam Woodworth (“The Old Oaken Bucket”) and John Howard Payne (“Home, Sweet Home”).
Gwynn’s perennial guests dubbed themselves the Delphian Club, and luminaries of the day flocked to get in the act — legal giant William Wirt, who trained eminent men; attorney William Pinckney, whose practice dominated many Supreme Court cases of the day; John Pendleton Kennedy, author of the novel “Swallow Barn,” and often characterized as the James Fenimore Cooper of Maryland; and John Neal, who created the nation’s first nationally important sporting magazine.”
I’ve been spending some time worrying over issues of transparency and participation in public humanities projects like historic designations and other writing about neighborhood history. Instead of hiding my work until I complete the “finished product” – whether that is a National Register nomination or a walking tour program – I’m interested in making more of my work public, visible and subject to feedback and criticism throughout the process. This idea is inspired in part by the concept of “open notebook science” and I’m curious to see how it works for me as a scholar and practitioner.
At the moment, I’m working on a National Register Historic District Nomination for the neighborhood of Midtown Edmondson. I met last night with a group of neighborhood residents who are volunteering to support the project and provide feedback on the draft nomination. One neighbor recalled the Super Pride location at W.Lafayette Avenue and N. Payson Street and asked that a history of the store be included. Here is my first draft of a short summary – I’ll likely update the post if I have any corrections or additions:
Super Pride was established by Charles Thurgood Burns (1915-1991) in 1970 when he took over the bankrupt “Super Jet Market” located on East Chase Street. Renaming the business Super Pride, he restored the business to profitability within three years despite the challenge of some food companies that refused to work with a black-owned store. Burns had started in the grocery business around 1921 delivering groceries for the small store his grandfather owned on Dolphin Street. He sold vegetables, produce and fish out of the back of a cart during high school and college then later became the co-owner of Hilton Court Chain of Ethical Pharmacies – a business that according to Burns’ obituary, “catered to the needs of black consumers at a time when white-owned businesses ignored them.”
Between 1970 and 1990, Super Pride grew to seven locations, employing more than 400 people, and making over $43 million in annual sales. Under Burns’ leadership, Super Pride sponsored Black History Month activities and supported the Arena Players. By the late 1990s, however, the business struggled to compete against national chains and the city’s shrinking population. In the fall of 2000, Super Pride closed all eight of its locations and, in November, held an auction to liquidate the stores and their remaining equipment to satisfy creditors.
Over the past year, I’ve helped to start the Preservation Rightsizing Network to bring greater attention to the intersecting issues of historic preservation and “rightsizing” in cities like Baltimore. My participation in this project has sparked my interested in digging into the history of how vacant properties have been discussed and managed in Baltimore throughout our city’s history.
Initial research turned up a report from 1994 highlighting an initiative (“never tried before on a citywide scale in Baltimore”) by Mayor Kurt Schmoke to restore or raze vacant rowhouses. Digging back a bit earlier, I found discussion under Mayor Theodore McKeldin who sought and received a new local ordinance allowing the city to demolish houses after they had been “boarded” for ninety days or more. McKeldin tied vacant houses to public health and safety, remarking in 1964:
“Vacant houses not only have a blighting effect on the areas around them but they are also an open invitation to vandals and a potential hazard for children who attempt to play within such buildings.”
I was unsurprised to find these connections back to post-WWII urban renewal efforts but I am even more intrigued by the intense debate around vacancy that took place over fifty years before in the summer of 1910.
On August 21, 1910, the Baltimore Police Board Published a “complete census” to count all of the city’s vacant and occupied dwellings. A member of the prominent local real estate firm William Martien & Company had suggested the survey to the Secretary of the board, reportedly, “As a result of the agitation over the number of vacant houses.” The census found that the Northwestern district led the city with over 1,300 vacant dwellings. Realtor James Cary Martien pointed to the city’s rapid suburban growth and the aging core as the cause, remarking:
“The number of vacant houses in the city is due both to the many dwellings being built in the suburbs and the dilapidated condition of many in Baltimore”
In the weeks that followed the publication of the report, a series of letters to the Sun expanded on Martien’s summary and tied the issue to the fights over “negro invasion” and the aggressive efforts by some white elected officials and property-owners to enforce racial segregation in residential neighborhoods.
When some residents argued that high taxes brought on vacant and abandoned houses, one northwest Baltimore resident wrote back under the name “Pure White” in a letter published on August 27 —
“Taxes may, and I presume do, have something to do with it; for our taxes are inordinately and unnecessarily high, but the possibility, and indeed the probability, of the negro neighbor is the main reason…
When a man works and saves and buys a home thinking it will be his shelter in his old age, and wakes up some morning to find he has a negro neighbor, he feels hurt and aggrieved that he has to give up his home, but he moves… I know of three families who want to buy a home this fall and they prefer the city to the suburbs, but they are hesitating because of this disagreeable possibility. We of the northwestern section have enough to bear in our close proximity to their noisy and disagreeable alleys, and we don’t want them next door to us. The real estate men—a few of them, not all—are to blame for the vacant houses and with them, lies the remedy.”
On September 2, 1910, another local echoed this sentiment and signed their letter “Justice” in a call for the city to protect him from the possibility of black neighbors —
“The writer has been living for nearly half a century in a neighborhood now threatened with negro invasion. There are several vacant houses in the block, and this fear may be the potent cause of non-rental or sale. Each vacant house is a standing menace to the rest. We live in daily dread that we may be driven out and forced to sell at a depreciated price if we can sell at all.”
On September 15, 1910, another letter recognized the alarming “negro invasion” but still gave priority to the threat of high taxes —
“The vacant house problem in the city should be one of grave concern at this time to our municipal administrators, to our real estate agents and to those having the welfare of the city at heart.
It is not a temporary but a growing evil that is confronting and threatening every owner of property. The number of vacant houses has grown and grown until at last there is common alarm in the matter, and justly so. What then are the causes producing this condition? There are many, but the fundamental one is purely economic—high taxes.
There are other contributing causes, but high taxes are essentially at the root of this ever dangerously increasing trouble. Negro invasion into heretofore white residential neighborhoods is undoubtedly aggravating the situation, and the alarm at such invasion is becoming more and more evidenced by the strained and tense feeling of the people residing in such invaded neighborhoods.”
I’m hoping to put a bit more time into this research over the next month and give these letters the context they deserve. Check out Garrett Power’s excellent 1983 history of the city’s residential racial segregation ordinances in the early 1910s for some excellent background.
In the piece, I was excited to find a reflection on the interracial makeup of the forces at the 1814 Battle of North Point and the the naval forces more broadly during the War of 1812. The example is used to illustrate the nation’s retreat from an integrated military (the U.S. Army formally prohibited enlistment for “Negroes and Mullatoes” in 1820) and urge free blacks to maintain an ‘organized neutrality in the case of a military conflict involving the U.S. writing:
“Shall we a third time kiss the foot that crushes us? If so, we deserve our chains. No! let us maintain an organized neutrality, until the laws of the Union and of all the states have made us free and equal citizens.”
The full piece is pretty fascinating but I pulled the quote on the Battle of North Point and the War of 1812 for its particular local interest.
An Important Subject Noted
The ‘Emancipator and Free American,’ the leading abolition paper of the north, has the following article which we copy entire that our Maryland readers may know something of what is going on out o’doors… we consider its character the most seditious and mischievous of any thing we have lately seen…
The Duty of Coloured Americans …
A large proportion of the seamen by whom our principal victories were gained in that war, were men of colour, who were then enlisted without restriction, but now we have a standing general order of the navy, that not more than five in a hundred seamen enlisted, shall be coloured — and this is officially explained to be for the purpose of confining coloured men to menial services on board our vessels of war! Said a brave man in Baltimore, who fought in the defence of North Point and afterwards served against Algiers in the Guerriere,
‘there we stood intermingled, white and coloured, manning the same gun, and shot down indiscriminately; the officers exhorted us to fight bravely in the defence of our country; and then after the war was over they tried to get us to go to Africa, and told us that was our country; but I will not go. I feel that this is my country and that I shall never go out of it alive.’
The Maryland Colonization Journal was published by the Maryland State Colonization Society an organization dedicated to promoting the transportation of manumitted enslaved people and free blacks to the west coast of Africa from 1827 to 1863. Records and correspondence from the history of the Maryland State Colonization Society are housed at the Maryland Historical Society (MS 571) and a substantial portion of the microfilm from that collection has been digitized by the Maryland State Archives.
This whole thing should be considered a working draft. It is back-dated to the last major revision in December 2013. Some of the different accounts of Babe Ruth in Fayetteville are contradictory and confusing – more work is really needed to parse through the variations on the stories involving the bicycle. Another version of this post that includes the footnotes can be found in this Google Doc.
Babe Ruth never owned a bicycle growing up in Baltimore. Born at his grandfather’s modest rowhouse on Emory Street in 1895, George Herman Ruth spent his first several years moving here and there in southwest Baltimore. At age seven, he entered St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys – a reformatory and orphanage on Wilkens Avenue established in 1866. At St. Mary’s, George learned to play baseball and at in early 1914 signed a contract with Jack Dunn, the owner and manager of the Baltimore Orioles.
By March, George and his teammates had arrived in Fayetteville, North Carolina where he started his life-long love of bicycles. On a Wednesday evening, March 18, 1914 – a little over a week since his first game in professional baseball – George hurried out after dinner to meet a new acquaintance – one of a handful of local boys who biked out to the field to watch the Orioles train. That afternoon, the boy had offered George a chance to borrow his bike after dinner and George lept at the opportunity.
While biking through town and gaining a bit of confidence, Babe Ruth decided to show off. He rode past the hotel where the Orioles had been staying, riding on the wrong side of the road and waving to a group of teammates out front. His teammates saw what George did not — a large truck bearing down on the novice cyclist.
Another account from Babe: The Legend Comes to Life by Robert W. Creame descibes a similar incident:
“One day, barreling around a corner, he missed running head-on into Dunn and Egan only by braking violently and twisting the bike to one side. He smacked into the back of a wagon and ended up on the ground, the bike draped around him, grinning at Dunn with cheerful embarrassment. Dunn looked at him sourly and said, “If you want to go back to the Home, kid, just keep riding those bicycles.”
In a minor variation on this theme, Allan Wood quotes Dunn as shouting, “You wanna go back to that school? You’re a ballplayer, not a goddman circus act!”
After another bicycle accident soon followed, Orioles scout Sam Steinman remarked to sportswriter Roger Pippen, “If Dunn doesn’t shackle that new babe of his, he won’t be a Rube Waddell in the rough, he’ll be a babe Ruth in the cemetery.” Pippen’s next article for the Baltimore American, published March 19, 1914, described a “young fledgling” ball player with the name “Babe Ruth” – the first time the nickname appeared in print.
When the regular season began in late April, the Orioles returned to Baltimore. Like all the players, Ruth received food and lodging during the spring training but did not get paid until the regular season began. When Ruth received his first paycheck, the first purchase he made was a bicycle. According to his recollections from The Babe Ruth Story, told to Bob Considine, Babe later shared:
“I went out and celebrated, just as soon as I got my first paycheck – $100. I bought a bicycle, something that I had wanted and often prayed for through most of my young life. Most of the Orioles, of course, had cars, but none of them was as proud as I was, riding the first possession of my life through the old streets of Baltimore.”
In his book, Robert Creamer contradicted Ruth’s recollections reporting the envelop had only $50 but still “more money than Ruth had ever seen” but reflected on the new bicycle writing: “Tooling around Baltimore on it, [Ruth] felt richer than God.”
Ruth’s history of collisions continued even after he bought the new bike (he bought a motorcycle and a car soon after). Newark pitcher Al Schacht was run down by bicycle ridden by a “gangling, moon-face kid” with a handful of hotdogs. Schacht yelled, “Why the hell don’t you watch where you’re going, Rube?” The “kid” replied “Sorry, mister, I almost dropped a hotdog and my hand slipped.” Schacht was even more surprised a short time later when he spotted the kid on the field wearing the Orioles uniform.
A few years later, just days after Babe Ruth and the Red Sox won the World Series in Boston, Ruth picked up his share of the winnings and spent the evening as the official “starter” for bike and motorcycle races at the Revere Beach track.
Ironically, Ruth’s success and the growing popularity of baseball eclipsed the long-standing interest in bicycle racing that made professional cyclists some of the highest paid athletes in the United States in the early 20th century. The circumstances had been quite the opposite a few decades earlier when, after the invention of the safety bicycle in 1885, cycling experienced a boom in popularity that rivaled baseball and even threatened attendance at the games:
“The owners also tried to capitalize on the bicycle craze of the ‘nineties, but without financial success. According to Al Reach, thousands of dollars were lost in laying out tracks for bike races in many of the baseball parks.”
One final note – I pulled this quote from some memoir but now I can’t find the source. Frustrating!
When we got outside, Babe looked around frantically for a taxi but there wasn’t one on the street. Suddenly, two kids on bikes came pedaling around the corner. Babe jumped in front of them, and they hit their brakes so they wouldn’t crash into him.
“Hey, kids, how much for the bicycles?” asked Babe.
“Huh?” the kids said.
“Here,” Babe said, pulling a $20 bill out of his pocket….
“Y’know how to ride a bicycle?” Babe asked me.
“Then let’s go!”
Back when I visited him in 1932, Babe Ruth drove me to Wrigley Field in Chicago. I almost died. Well, he rode a bicycle the same way– like a maniac. He took off and started pedaling furiously, weaving around street vendors, potholes and garbage cans. Little old ladies were diving out of his way. Cars were honking at him, and I wasn’t sure if it was…
CASH FOR NEGROES – The subscriber has built a large and extensive establishment and private jail for the keeping of SLAVES in PRATT st., one door from Howard st. opposite the Circus or Repository.
The building having been erected under his own inspection, without regard to price; planned and arranged upon the most approved principle, with an eye to comfort and convenience, not surpassed by any establishment of the kind in the United States, is now ready to receive SLAVES. The male and female apartments are completely separate – the rooms for both are large light and airy, and all above ground, with a fine large yard for exercise, with pure delightful water within doors. In erecting and planning this edifice the subscriber had an eye to the health and cleanliness of the slaves, as well as the many other necessary conveniences. Having a wish to accommodate my Southern friends and others in the trade, I am determined to keep them on the lowest possible terms, at twenty-five cents per head a day, and furnish them with plenty of good and wholesome provisions. Such security and confidence I have in my building that I hold myself bound to make good all jail breaking, or escapes from my establishment. I also will receive, ship or forward to any place at the request of the owner, and give it my personal attention.
N B – Cash and the highest prices will at all times be given for likely slaves of both sexes, with good and sufficient titles. Persons having such property to dispose of, would do well to see me before they sell, as I am always purchasing for the New Orleans market – I, or my agent can at all times be found at my office, in the basement story of my new building.
Hope H. Slatter
Classified Ad 40 — No Title, The Sun (1837-1987); Jul 11, 1838; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Baltimore Sun, The (1837-1987) pg. 3
I wrote this post back in 2010 but took it down after judging it a bit too personal and not my strongest writing. I recently received a comment from someone who grew up in Arcola Knolls looking for more information about the development so I wanted to re-post with a few minor edits from the original.
There are many modest vernacular examples of mid-century modern design in the Washington, DC suburbs that often go overlooked in favor of more iconic, innovative, or controversial buildings. My own appreciation for the vernacular modernism of Maryland’s post-WWII subdivisions, gas stations, auto garages, and municipal buildings arrived gradually during the three years I lived in a 1962 split-level in the Arcola Knolls subdivision at the edge of Wheaton Regional Park. Although not quite as stylish as the homes in nearby Hammond Wood designed by Charles M. Goodman, Arcola Knolls testifies to a fascinating period in regional history as rapid residential development encouraged local architects, developers, and home-buyers to experiment with contemporary architectural design.
Jo-Rich Developers, Inc. began work on Arcola Knolls in 1961 with the subdivision of the former agricultural property into 11 lots along Arcola and Orebaugh Avenues. Jo-Rich Developers, Inc. grew out of the friendship between builders Joseph Bonnett and Richard Cohen, just 27 and 21 years old when they began the project. Bonnett, a veteran and married father of two, planned to move his own family into the project upon completion while Cohen still lived with his parents in the North Portal Estates neighborhood of Washington, DC. Bonnett described the design of Arcola Knolls as “striking and daring in the contemporary style,” featuring a “post and beam effect, exceptional window space and adaptation to indoor-outdoor living.” Each house included four bedrooms and three baths, and was listed for sale by N.S. Bryer, Inc. for $28,950.
In April 1962, Jo-Rich Developers advertised the small development as “Silver Spring’s Most Contemporary Community,” emphasizing its proximity to churches, Northwood High School (1956), Wheaton Library (1962), and Wheaton Plaza (1959). With the rapid growth of Wheaton in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the adjoining Wheaton Park served as a pocket of wilderness, described in a Washington Post headline: “Verdant Island Rises in the Suburbs.” The Post noted that when “asked how the county managed to save the plot from homebuilders,” a Maryland National Capitol Parks and Planning official said simply, “‘We got there first.'”
Architect John Arnold d’Epagnier (1913-1977) graduated from Catholic University with a B.Arch. in 1936 and by the 1950s maintained an office in the recently transformed Cissel-Lee building in Silver Spring. Previous examples of his residential design included “The Presidential,” a 1955 model home in Burnt Mills Estates, a “community of contemporary homes…to appeal to the modern-minded young families.” In addition to residential architecture, d’Epagnier designed a wide range of commercial structures and religious buildings including the Ohev Sholom Talmud Torah synagogue at 16th & Jonquil Streets NW, and St. John the Baptist Parish in Colesville, a congregation to which he also belonged.
d’Epagnier’s design for Arcola Knolls evidently proved popular as Jo-Rich sold all eleven homes within a few short months. My own grandparents purchased a home at the end of Orebaugh Avenue in 1962 and remained there for over forty years. My grandfather was a mechanical engineer working for the Department of the Navy and my Mom recalls that the modern architecture held a lot of appeal.
Unfortunately, Jo-Rich Development abandoned modern architecture on their few subsequent project, building low-slung Colonials in Montrose Park, Bethesda. Joseph Bonnett went with Dutch Colonial dwellings designed by architect Morton Noble for his late-1960s development, Hearthstone Square. In 1973, Richard Cohen went on to take over Wilco Companies – a commercial real estate development firm started by his father Charles Cohen in the early 1960s with investment from the sale of his two successful prior enterprises the Capitol Trash Company and the Normandy Cup Company. The firm remains a large commercial real estate development and investment firm in the Washington, DC area.
Arcola Knolls, the project where Richard Cohen’s development career began, where my grandparents bought a house and my mother grew up, remains a stand-out example of vernacular modernism in the Maryland suburbs.
“California Contemporary Homes Open Next Week.” The Washington Post and Times Herald (1954-1959), May 8, 1955.
Dessoff, Alan L. “Verdant Island Rises in Suburbs.” The Washington Post, Times Herald (1959-1973), July 7, 1960.
Montgomery County Circuit Court Land Survey, Subdivision, and Condominium Plats. “Plat 6353, Arcola Knolls, Blocks A-B; William Cohen and Charles Cohen,” June 20, 1961. Link.
“Young Builders Go Contemporary.” The Washington Post, Times Herald (1959-1973), March 31, 1962.