I’ve been driving up and down Harford Road pretty regularly over the past few weeks for our work on the Herring Run Archaeology project. Each time I return back down to Mount Vernon, this midcentury bank building at 2056 Harford Road just called out to me. Knowing nothing about the building, I went looking for some more details.
A quick search turned up a Baltimore Sun account from September 4, 1956 – Branch Bank To Be Marked By New Look – turned up some key details on this former branch location for the Union Trust Bank:
“A long-range program of modernization has resulted in the construction of eight new, modern bank buildings to replace old structures, plus extensive remodeling and enlargement of five additional branch offices in a ten-year period. There are now 25 Union Trust banking offices scattered through the Baltimore area. […] Designed by Smith & Veale, local architects, the new building is to give the conception of a glass box. The steel frame is exposed and treated as part of the architecture of the building. Masonry masses are utilized to conceal the vault and other security facilities of the branch. […] Ample hard-surfaced parking area on the rear of the lot is afforded for walk-in customers. A drive-up window beneath a canopy is available along the side of the building.”
The firm of Smith & Veale was a partnership of local architects Thomas W. Smith and Graham Veale established shortly after the end of World War II. The firm designed scores of modern banks, libraries and schools. Veale, who passed away in 1996 at the age of 91, was a Philadelphia native who came to Baltimore as a teenager. Smith died in 1998 at the age of 89. I recently profiled two other buildings designed by the firm – the KAGRO Building on North Avenue and the North Point Branch of the Baltimore County Public Library – as part of a nascent effort to expand our coverage of modernism in Explore Baltimore Heritage. I’d love to located the eight new Union Trust bank branches mentioned above and add them to our growing collection. If you’re interested in modernist architecture in Baltimore, please join the Baltimore Modernism Project Facebook group to share ideas, research and writing on this theme.
The striking combination of the midcentury sign board and the cantilevered canopy above the bank’s drive-through window was regrettably demolished in the fall of 2013 – not long after the deteriorated condition of the building was highlighted with a public artwork by Wall Hunters Mural project. The bank building remains vacant.
When Google Streetview last captured Harford Road in October 2014, a “For Rent” advertised the building’s availability and included a phone number t0 call for more information: 443-255-2028.
Featured image: Photograph by Camilo J. Vergara, 2013 January 9. Library of Congress, vrg 00340.
This post is the first half of a paper I am working on for the 2015 Vernacular Architecture Forum conference in Chicago this June. The paper focuses on the history of vacant housing and demolition from the mid 19th to early 20th century. This is a draft so I’d welcome any initial thoughts, questions or suggestions.
We have a problem with vacant houses in Baltimore. A vacant might be a bank-owned brick townhouse from the 1970s; a narrow two-story rowhouse built for working-class whites in the 1910s; or a four-story 1870s mansion half-collapsed into the basement. Baltimore City estimates the city holds around 16,000 vacant properties — mostly attached rowhouses built before WWII.
Visitors to Baltimore won’t find vacant houses in every neighborhood. In the largely white area of Hampden, Remington and Medfield, the vacancy rate is less than 1% — around sixty houses. In the West Baltimore neighborhoods of Sandtown-Winchester and Harlem Park, over one-third of residential properties are vacant — totalling more than 2,000 vacant buildings.
It was in Sandtown on April 12 where a group of Baltimore police officers arrested Freddie Gray. A week later, Gray’s death from injuries he suffered in police custody sparked huge protests against police violence. Some residents marched and organized, others attacked local storefronts and burned police cars, prompting the city and state to bring in National Guard troops and impose a citywide curfew. Journalists from across the nation descended on Baltimore to write about the so-called “riots” and to ask the question: what’s the problem with Baltimore? How did the city get to be so poor, so violent and so segregated? Why does Baltimore have so many vacant houses?
Despite the confident explanations offered in newspaper editorials and television reports, over the past few weeks, these are not easy questions to answer. Even when people in Baltimore try to explain our “vacant house problem,” the responses often are incomplete at best and misleading at worst.
A professor at Johns Hopkins University might highlight Bethlehem Steel’s $1.5 billion loss in 1982 — a watershed in the city’s loss of good jobs to neoliberalism and globalization.
A neighborhood activist in Druid Heights might point back to the unrest that rocked the city after the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, leaving vacant lots and vacant buildings that have never recovered.
A retiree living in Columbia who grew up shopping at downtown department stories may sadly recall when O’Neil’s Department Store closed the day after Christmas in 1955.
An amateur urban planner on Facebook might talk about how the city’s population peaked around 1 million in 1950 before falling more than a third to 620,961 in 2010.
Limited as they are, each of these stories has the power to shape policy around vacant housing. Do we invest in tearing vacant houses down or fixing them up? Can demolition solve Baltimore’s vacant house problem? Can historic preservation?
A recent Blight as Politics Symposium at the University of Michigan articulated the urgency of questioning narrowly framed, just-so stories of the urban crisis:
“With a few signal exceptions, discussions of ‘blight’ have proceeded in dehistoricized and depoliticized contexts oriented around narrow technical parameters, as if ‘blight’ was an easily defined and objective phenomenon instead of the spatial residue of racism and segregation, deindustrialization, disinvestment, and other fraught dynamics of American urban history.”
Baltimore’s vacant houses — an iconic symbol of the city’s poverty, violence and desolation — first appeared before 1982, before 1968, and before 1950. As early as 1880, the Baltimore City Police Department was trying to monitor and mitigate the problems of vacant houses in the city’s wealthy suburbs. In 1910, observers in Baltimore called vacant houses “a growing evil,” the source of “common alarm.” In 1932, one prominent local architect declared that the rowhouse had no potential for “modern and reasonably attractive” use; Baltimore’s “dying areas” were forced into a “hopeless future competition” with the suburbs.
The foundation of Baltimore’s current debate over what to do about vacant houses in Sandtown-Winchester has been laid down over the course of a century or more. The debate is framed by a long history of salvage and demolition, stories about the places we choose to forget, to tear down, and to salvage instead of save. In this way, we can read the history of vacants — how we describe them and what we do about them — as an alternate history of historic preservation itself.
Concerns over population loss and vacant housing in Baltimore date back nearly two centuries. Writing in 1831, publisher Hezekiah Niles reflected on the city’s population loss during the economic crisis of the early 1820s, recalling how “because of the want of employment in those years, [there was a] consequent removal of the people, to the north, south, east and west.” The city had recovered from the severe depression and Niles could then boast that, “There is hardly a house unoccupied, though a very large number was built the last season.”
With capital from men like Hezekiah Niles, as well as the labor from thousands of recent immigrants, enslaved and free blacks, Baltimore grew quickly. The city more than doubled in population between 1830 and 1850. Growth came with new patterns of land use around Baltimore’s downtown. Property-owners tore down hundreds of old homes to make way for new warehouses and commercial buildings.
In May 1847, the National Intelligencer on a rare demolition “deemed worthy of notice,” wrote:
“workmen are now engaged tearing down the very oldest house in Baltimore; to erect in its stead an elegant new warehouse. […] Daguerreotype sketches and other drawings were taken of it, to preserve as relics, prior to its demolition.”
In a later example, from January 1891, locals gathered at the scene of the demolition of a former suburban mansion overwhelmed by the city built up around it with a plan to take more than drawings. As the crowd watched the “quaint but pretentious little building of classic architecture” disappear “before the march of modern improvement” they “eagerly gathered “pieces of its mantel-pieces and bits of its woodwork […] for souvenirs.” The home, known as Tusculum, was fondly remembered as the host of a vibrant arts and poetry society in the early 1800s. Despite the building’s neglect, it was still occupied by a “family of colored people” who “made the noted Tusculum their home” but likely had little power to protest their eviction.
After demolition, the elements of an abandoned building could be turned into mementoes or into the very source of subsistence and survival. The hard times that Hezekiah Niles witnessed in the early 1820s returned again in wake of the Panic of 1893. In February 1895, the Sun reported how:
“The demolition of the Old City College building on North Howard street was eagerly watched all day yesterday by a crowd of persons armed with baskets or bags, and anxious to pick from the ruins some bits of wood to add to their scanty store of fuel at home.”
Perhaps some among the crowd took shelter in the city’s vacant houses. In the 1880s, many impoverished travelers – “tramps” – had been found “sleeping in the brick and limekilns of South and Southwest Baltimore.” A white person with no home could find a place to spend the night at a police station house, but as the Sun observed in 1888:
“A notable fact is the small number of colored tramps who call at the station-houses. This is not because there are no colored tramps, but because they are generally badly treated by their white brethren when lodging together.”
Evidence for the growing availability of vacant houses in the city can be found in an October 1898 account which observed defensively:
“Other cities have endeavored to make capital of reports of the very large number of vacant houses in Baltimore, claiming it as an evidence that this city is falling behind.”
The account continues to highlight a strong resurgence in home building – but, as the next decade illustrated, strong growth could paradoxically increase vacant housing. This combination of growth and inequality shaped a new response to vacant housing from metal thieves and the city police.
Between 1850 and 1880, the city’s population doubled again and new buildings had sprawled over the city limits and into “the Belt” – an area built up with factories and clusters of suburban cottages that surrounded the city to the east, west and north. Throughout this period, inadequate sewers and frequent outbreaks of disease encouraged many well-off residents to leave their homes every summer.
Seasonal vacancy illustrates the challenge of defining what makes a vacant house. Whether a property owner leaves their house unoccupied for a month or a year, when does it become vacant? The persistence and scale of seasonal vacancy between the 1860s and early 1900s, left many homes at risk of an illicit form of salvage and demolition – metal theft – and placed a new burden on Baltimore city and county police officers to protect the Baltimore’s vacant homes on behalf of their absent owners.
An typical example of metal theft at a vacant house appeared in March 1868 describing how thieves in the night “carried off, undetected, two chandeliers and six brackets valued at $125” from a vacant dwelling at 659 West Lombard Street. In 1877, the Sun described how a suburban home in northwest Baltimore standing “vacant for some months” was “entered by vandals and despoiled of nearly all its detachable metal fittings,” adding that “Residents of the belt complain that depredations of this kind are frequent.” In 1887, two men were arrested for taking “copper lining in bath-tubs, gas brackets, globes and lead pipe” from “unoccupied houses in the neighborhood of Lexington street and Fulton avenue.”
The police response to these threats was creative. In 1877, the officer encouraged property-owners cut “peep-holes” in their back fences “at convenient points for observation, through which the officers can have a full view of the rear of the premises without climbing over.”
In August 1881, the police asked local families to report their travel plans to local authorities creating what is likely the city’s earliest formal inventory of vacant buildings, as the Sun reported:
“This summer the exodus from Baltimore has been greater than usual, and there are probably some twelve or thirteen hundred houses vacant, mainly in the north and northwestern sections of the city. The protection of this property is left to the police, and how to preserve it intact has been a matter of careful consideration by the police authorities. Notifications that the families have removed are generally sent to Police Marshal Gray or to the captains of districts with requests that the houses be looked after.”
In 1897, concern over “Vacant House Robberies” led Baltimore police officers to patrol in “citizen dress” to try to catch thieves in the act. Baltimore Police Captain Solomon Freeburger offered a number of creative ideas as a solution including a plan to place younger officers in the neighborhoods with the greatest number of vacant homes, noting:
“In the residential parts of the city where there are great numbers of vacant houses, it would be well to place the young men who are active and alert. Daily inspection of all property left for the summer is practiced at present in this city.”
Freeburger even recommended electric burglar alarms calling them an “almost a perfect guarantee of a thief’s apprehension, or, at least, that he will be frightened off before accomplishing robbery.”
Metal theft is one of the earliest local examples of illicit and criminal activity that concentrated on vacant houses but it is far from the last. In the 1910s and 1920s, police raided illegal stills and gambling halls in vacant houses. In the 1930s, officers made mass arrests of “vagrants,” people left homeless and unemployed by the Great Depression, who took shelter in the growing number of abandoned homes. In this way, vacant houses became more than just unoccupied buildings – they became seen a threat to public order that required an aggressive response by the police and public policy.
On August 14, 1957, the Baltimore Sun published an editorial inspired by the proposal to locate a new Civic Center in Druid Hill Park despite strong objections by the Baltimore Park Board. More broadly, the piece highlights some of the consequential choices that Baltimore made in the 1940s and 1950s when they traded parkland for police stations and highways. This is, in part, the story of how the Western District Police Station replaced a playground at Mount Street and Riggs Avenue.
“Under the city charter the Park Board has “charge and control” of all park property. A guardian for the park system, with the power to say “no,” is needed because proposals to encroach on park property are being made all the time. Sometimes public interest justifies the proposals. Sometimes it does not. The Park Board is there to make such determinations, always with the welfare of the parks in mind.
We offer a few examples, just to show the kind of pressure the park system is under:
The State wanted 21 acres of undeveloped land in Herring Run Park in connection with plans for the Northeast expressway and the approach to the Harbor Tunnel. The Park Board went along with this.
This had the effect of cutting off 50 other acres of Herring Run Park. The city asked for these acres for a site for a new wholesale market. The Park Board went along. Total loss to Herring Run: 71 acres.
In planning an extension of Perring parkway, the city wanted 5 acres of the Mount Pleasant golf course. The Park Board was able to acquire some partially compensating acreage and went along.
The city concluded that a playground at Fulton and Riggs avenues, for which the Park Board planned further development, would be the ideal site for a new police station. The Park Board was finally convinced, and co-operated.
The city also wanted an acre of land, near Hurley and Fonthill avenues, for another police station. This was park of Gwynns Falls Park, but the Park Board, finding it not particularly desirable for park purposes ,went along.
Park land along Mount Royal terrace was plainly needed for the Jones Falls expressway. The board yielded the land after a scheme had been worked out which gives compensating advantages in return for the lost land.
Some time back, to relieve traffic congestion, the city proposed extensions of McCulloh street and Druid Hill avenue to drive through the southwest corner of Druid Hill Park. The Park Board acquiesced in this plea of necessity, after standing up for a minimum of impairment.
At one stage in the civic-center proceedings, a site in Clifton Park was proposed. Northing came of this.
At another stage in the same proceedings, a proposal was made to take over the small park adjacent to the Mount Royal Station. Nothing came of this.
These are merely a few of the more conspicuous episodes in what might be called a continuous war of attrition against the parks. They point up the necessity for a semi-autonomous body with power to pass judgment on all schemes for reducing out precious park acreage.
But now the authority of this body, the Park Board, has been defied. When the Mayor and City Council seized 30 acres of Druid Hill Park land for a civic center site, they did so against the will of the Park Board. If this seizure stands unchallenged, a shadow lies across the board’s supposed powers. The guardian of our park system will have been disarmed.
Source: “Disarmed.” The Sun (1837-1989). August 14, 1957. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Image: Protesters sit outside the Baltimore Police Department’s Western District police station at the end of a march for Freddie Gray, Tuesday, April 21, 2015. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky) via WTOP.
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.
Similarly to Mid-century Modern architecture today, the appreciation of Art Deco architecture and design experienced a revival in the late 1970s. This revival included the successful effort of the Miami Design Preservation League (1976) to the listing of the MiamiArt Deco District on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979 and the spread of grassroots Art Deco preservation organizations in cities across the United States from the Art Deco Society of New York (1980) to the Detroit Area Art Deco Society (1986) and the Art Deco Society of the Palm Beaches (1987).
Baltimore had its own Art Deco Society and, although the organization has not survived through the present, interest in the topic resulted in the 1984 publication of an architectural survey of Baltimore Deco architecture. Around a year ago, I spent an hour or two paging through a copy at the office and transcribed the list of featured buildings into a table, now (thanks to a bit of fooling with Google Fusion Tables) included here as a map:
Enjoy as an informal (and certainly incomplete) tour of 1930s Baltimore architecture. I’m hoping to return to this topic again soon for more research and discussion.
More Art Deco Societies
Art Deco Society of California (1981) in San Francisco
I have been working on a long post about State Center for weeks but I wanted to share a shorter piece in the interim. I found some time this evening to write up a few notes on the delightfully Brutalist Baltimore Post Office built in 1972 as part of the Shot Tower Industrial Park urban renewal project. I hope to expand on this in the future with more context on urban renewal in Jonestown.
Baltimore Post Office (1972) – 900 East Fayette Street
With a floor area the size of sixteen football fields and a Brutalist façade composed of precast concrete panels, the Baltimore Post Office on East Fayette Street is a stark reminder of the scale and style of early 1970s urban renewal. The Post Office was designed in 1968 by Tatar & Kelly – a partnership of Seymour Tatar & W. Boulton Kelly – with Cochran, Stephenson & Donkervoet serving as associate architects. Further examples Tatar & Kelly can be found in modern buildings from the Enoch Pratt Free Library – Reisterstown Road Branch (1967), Steuart Hill Elementary School (1969) at Union Square, and the Baltimore County Public Library – Towson Branch (1974).
The builder, McCloskey-Leavell from Philadelphia, also developed the property under a build-lease scheme where the post office was built by a private enterprise, giving the federal government a lease and a later option to purchase. When the new building opened in 1972, the Post Office invested $5 million in new equipment with 4,000 employees. A 1971 account in The Baltimore Sun heralded the development as an anchor for the Shot Tower Industrial Park — a 24-acre area bounded by Colvin Street, Fayette Street, the Fallsway and Orleans Street.