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 September 1973, Mayor William Donald Schaefer led an effort to commission a set of ten murals funded by a $10,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. 85 artists submitted over 200 designs to the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) for a competition reviewed by a panel of judges including: Jane Harrison Cone, a curator of the Baltimore Museum of Art, Serena Jordan of Northwest Baltimore Corporation, James Lewis, a professor of Morgan State and founder of the James E. Lewis Museum of Art, M. Jay Brodie of DHCD, Betty Wells, a local artist, and Joan Berska of the Mayor’s office.
The panel selected ten winning designs and provided each artist with donated paint (Sears offered around 80 gallons), scaffolding, and a a $1000 honorarium. By July 1974 nearly all ten of the murals were complete and Mayor William Donald Schaefer was pleased with how the colorful murals had brightened the streetscape, remarking on a bus tour of the murals in early October:
“It’s a psychological thing. I don’t know if you’ve heard my lecture: If you go into a neighborhood and it’s dull an drab, you’re dull and drab. But if you go into a neighborhood and it’s bright and clean you feel better. You expect big things to be done. But it’s the little things that make the difference between living in a city and just existing.”
Mayor William Donald Schaefer’s bus tour was followed by a bike tour of a selection of eight of the ten artworks organized by the Baltimore Bicycling Club, Citizens For Bikeways and the Better Air Coalition to kick off Clean Air Week in Maryland.
Bill Tashlick, who led the ride, was an architect with the Rouse Company before starting work with the Baltimore Department of Planning in 1971. As the chairman of a joint bicycle task force including government agencies and citizens groups, he worked with the Maryland Department of Transportation on the design of bikeways across the state.
Tashlick’s bike tour of Baltimore murals began at Roland and Lake Avenues near the city line at the top of one of the city’s first designated bikeways. Gil Watson – who covered cycling for The Baltimore Sun in the 1970s and by the 1990s worked as the paper’s Sunday editor – joined the group of 23 cyclists on a chilly Sunday morning and provided an fascinating account that sketches out the 10 mile route:
Down Roland avenue, down University to San Martin, Howard to North. First stop was North and Park avenue where, in huge, cheerful block letters the word “Baltimore” itself is immortalized.
From Park we worked over to the 1800 block McCulloh, where a bold wall of yellow, green, orange and chartreuse (I think) rose from a small expanse of open grass. (All the murals are graced with a bit of open space.) Sunday early-risers eyed us as we eyed the wall.
Behind the Afro-American at Druid Hill avenue and Jasper street, a stylized pair of black dancers frozen on a white background was stop No. 3. No. 4 was the coffeeshop across from the Greyhound terminal on Howard.
Moving out again, some of us still carrying coffee, we headed for the Police Stables on the Fallsway, where a big horizontal design plays perspective games with motorists headed north.
We then chugged up to the corner of Barclay and East Chase. Kids were playing basketball in front of another mural, this one a towering vertical in green and white.
Two more stops, one at Aisquith and Lanvale, the other in the 1600 block North Calvert, and we ended our mural tour at what is surely one of the most intriguing – Robert Hieronymous’s creation at Lanvale and St. Paul. Fantastically detailed, intricate and dominated by a one-eyed pyramid and an eagle, it has to be seen to be appreciated.
For that matter, they all have to be seen. The ride took roughly two hours (skipping one painting in Patterson Park facing Baltimore street and another at West Mulberry and Mount).
This map involves a bit of conjecture as Gil Watson left out some details on their route towards the end of the ride. A few of the murals have survived the 30 years since but most are faded beyond any recognition or lost altogether. The mural painted for the police stables on the Fallsway still sports a small metal sign that appropriately credits funding for the “Wall Painting Project” to the NEA. Look out for an update with a gallery of the ghosts of surviving murals later this summer or follow the route to see how many you can spot yourself.
Banisky, Sandy. “Bringing Color, Design to Some of Baltimore’s Blankest, Dullest Walls.” The Sun (1837-1987). October 12, 1974. Link. “Other Murals, Other Artists.” The Sun (1837-1987). June 23, 1974. Link. Watson, Gil. “Wheeling: A Bike Tour of Downtown.” The Sun (1837-1987). November 3, 1974. Link.
Formed in 1880, the League of American Wheelmen worked throughout the late-19th century advocating for road improvements, fighting for the right of cyclists to use public roads, and promoting bike racing as a sport. Baltimore boasted a large community of cyclists in the 1880s and 1890s and played host to the League’s annual Convention in 1888 and 1896. On a warm July evening in 1894, the Maryland Division of the League of American Wheelmen lined up at Druid Lake for an evening parade through the streets of Baltimore:
“‘Line up,’ ‘Fall in by twos,’ ‘Don’t jam,’ and then the parade of the Maryland Division, League of American Wheelmen, was off.
The route of the parade was Eutaw Place to Eutaw street, to Monument, to Charles, to Chase street, to Broadway, to Canton avenue and return by the same route. Some of the wheelmen came up Baltimore street on the return trip, but the larger part of the parade returned by Mt. Vernon Pace.
The largest contingents of riders came from the Harlem Wheelmen captained by George Kugler, the Maryland Bicycle Club led by Captain A.L. McMormick and the Baltimore Cycling Club, with 60 riders, led by Captain E.R. Folger. Bike clubs from across the city – Centaur, Clifton, the Young Men’s Christian Association, Patapsco, Riverside, and the Junior Order United American Mechanics – joined the parade.
When the cyclists were ready there was a wavering of the crescent of lamps far out at the east end of the lake. As Chief Consul Albert Mott, who commanded as marshal, came down the line he was received with applause. Club after club fell into line on the right and whizzed past the waiting cyclists on the left.
As Consul Mott went through the Eutaw Place gate after the start he had nearly a thousand wheelmen at his back, and a half-dozen wheelwomen too, who were not to be outdone by their male comrades. The ladies rode to the finish.
The riders passed through large crowds of spectators on each side as they went through the streets and responded to the applause by giving club yells, tooting syren whistles and jingling several bells that sounded as if they had done service as cowbells in the country.”
I’ve traced the route described in the account from The Sun (available through ProQuest) and included some suggested detours that Baltimore’s one-way streets demand. I’m hoping this will be the first in a series of posts that follow along with cyclists from the past in Baltimore and beyond.
Working in Mt. Vernon gives me ample opportunities to enjoy the neighborhood’s historic architecture and our generous share of surface parking lots. Many of these lots date from the 1960s when plans to redevelop Mount Vernon as a center of high-rise apartment buildings and office towers stalled out. The Baltimore Urban Renewal and Housing Authority demolished scores of 19th century rows and mansions to clear the way for development but developers only completed a handful of the many proposed building projects.
I’d love to share a more detailed account of the history of parking in Mt. Vernon (or automobile culture in Baltimore more broadly) but you can get a taste from this 1965 Baltimore Sun piece, “Parking Lot Will Replace Landmark Preston St. House” by Frank P.L. Somerville, September 5, 1965:
“Plans to demolish another landmark in the Mount Vernon area, the white marble mansion on the southeast corner of St. Paul and Preston streets, were announced yesterday.
A spokesman for the William Cook-Brooks funeral establishment said the three-story house at 101 East Preston street will be razed, probably next month, to make room for a parking lot. …
The Donaldson House is another is a long string of Mount Vernon area landmarks turned over to the wreckers in recent years.
Other distinguished Nineteenth Century buildings removed from the once-fashionable area south of Mount Royal avenue include two mansion replaced by a tall apartment house at Calvert and Chase streets; half a block of St. Paul street houses that fave way to another large apartment building now under construction at St. Paul and Chase streets; a whole block of West Monument street houses razed by the Maryland Historical Society to provide a lot for a new wing; the Cadoa buildings on Franklin street, now the site of a parking lot owned by the Catholic Archdiocese; Greek Revival houses on Cathedral street and Park avenue demolished for new apartment construction and several houses on Charles Street between Eager and Chase streets recently replaced by parking lots or new construction.
Demolition crews are in the process of leveling three mansions at the northwest corner of Charles and Chase Street.”
Over a year ago, I organized and led a bike tour of Civil War history in West Baltimore for my work Baltimore Heritage. In researching the history of Fort No. 1, an earthen fortification on West Baltimore Street where Bon Secours Hospital is located today, I turned up an unexpected story under the modest headline “Flag presentation.”
On the evening of July 20, 1863, a little less than a month after U.S. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton’s General Order 143 created the U.S. Colored Troops, a group of free black laborers assembled to present an American flag to a group of Union troops including two companies of black Union soldiers led by Colonel William Birney. The account of the ceremony in The Baltimore Sun recorded speeches by Col. Birney and Col. Donn Piatt and opens a window onto a truly unique moment in our local and national history as people in Baltimore, both black and white, witnessed the emancipation of enslaved people and saw them armed to fight against the Confederacy. I’ve shared a full excerpt of the account below with a handful of photos to help illustrate the scene.
Flag presentation – Yesterday evening about 6 o’clock, the colored laborers who have been working on the various fortifications assembled at fort No. 1, (Fort Davis,) situated near Stuart’s place, on Baltimore street extended, for the purpose of presenting to the military authorities a national flag, which they had purchased to be placed on the above manned fort. Two companies of Col. Birney’s colored regiment were present, as were also two companies of the Fifth New York Battery. Gen. Milroy and staff were present, also nearly all the members of Major Gen. Schenck’s staff. Col. Birney made the presentation on behalf of the colored laborers, and Col. Donn Piatt, on the part of the government, received the flag.
Colonel Piatt — In behalf of the colored laborers on this fort, I have the honor to present to you, for the United States, the flag whose folds are now, for the first time, given to the breeze. It is a token of gratitude from men who, after having been long outlawed from our civilization, have been allowed to hope they have at last a country. Who that is not one of them can tell how deep and fervent is that sentiment! With what grateful love they turn to that banner which whispers to them hope and trust in God! To know it fully one must have himself felt the unutterable yearning for deliverance which for two centuries has filled with its agony the hearts of the laboring men of Maryland.
It did seem to them that God had forgotten that they were cast out from His mercy to be trodden under foot of men. The heavens were overcast with the thickening signs of a coming rebellion, but there was no bow of hope for the slave. Stormy words of menace swelled high on every breeze from the South but the hardy Northern mariner would not hear them in the blinding mist of the ocean; the lumberman did not cease his swift blows on the mountain oak, or the merchant to pore over his ledger, or the farmer to drive his plow, and the politician laughed at the speeding calamity as a sixty days’ bubble. — But God that sitteth in the heavens remembered. He meant to teach this nation. Victory was not a perch upon our banners, the plague was not to e stayed, until the unclean thing was put out of the camp. The inexorable logic of events produced the proclamation of freedom by President Lincoln; and colored men, both free and slaves, thanked God. It was then their hearts were wedded to the stars and stripes.
The flag they present you to-day is in token of their loyalty. Their hearts are true. Whoever else may be swayed from duty, the black remains firm. Pluck him from the very core of rebeldom, and he is a true man. You may trust him. All his aspirations are for the sake — of the right — the triumph of the nation. For his, the success of traitors is his own degradation, the dishonor of his family, the doom of his race to perpetual infamy.
You may regard, sir, the presentation of this flag as implying the readiness of the men of color to defend it. You have witnessed their alactricity in springing to the lines of these fortifications when Baltimore was menaced, their cheerfulness in volunteering their labor, their patience in its prosecution. These forts around the city will be monuments to their patriotism. With equal alactricity, sir, do they respond to the call of the country “to arms.” When the Goddess of American Liberty hands them the musket, they accept it with stalwart and ready arms, thankful to Providence that their frugal diet has prepared them for the soldier’s rations, that their life of continuous labor in the open air has inured them in advance to the hardships of campaigning, and that they have not now to learn patience and obedience, those two virtues of the soldier.
This battalion, here present, of colored men, armed with the muskets and clothed in the uniform of the United States, proves that the free colored men of Baltimore respond at once to the call of the country. They feel that their zeal will meet with the approval of the good men of this city and country: that the men who are saved from the perils of war by their devotion, will protect their wives and children when they are absent. They confide their little ones, so dear to them, to the honor of the citizens of Baltimore. Their dearest hope is that this war may give them an opportunity to vindicate their manhood; that when the blood of the white man and the black shall mingle on the same fields, for the same holy cause, they may clasp hands over the grave of buried animosities and wrongs, having together achieved Liberty and Union, now and forever one and inseparable.
Colonel Don Piatt, chief of Gen. Schenck’s staff, responded as follows:
In the name of the Eighth Army Corps of the Middle Department I accept this beautiful flag, purchase with the hard earnings of the workmen, to adorn the fort their hard labor erected.
In recognizing he fact I feel deeply that this is no ordinary presentation. Given and accepted as the banner is, I see an epoch in the history of our flag. Heretofore it has been the emblem of our power. Hereafter it will be that and the emblem of humanity as well. In the past it has carried in its folds only a portion of our Declaration of Independence; now it emblazons to the world every sacred word of that immortal instrument.
These are the closing scenes of our revolution. What our fathers began we hasten to complete. Our first act, achieved our independence as a nation. This, the last act, proclaims the independence of the man. This plan, running through a complicated chain of grave events, is evident to the thoughtful mind. It is the design of the Almighty. We have been tried, chastened, humbled, and, let me hope, with evidence before me, not found wanting.
Who could believe that the Divine hand that held through long centuries this vast continent an unbroken solitude, that on it at last the oppressed of all nations should find a refuge and a home; who guided the frail bark of Columbus to its destination.; sustained the pilgrims, and wrought almost miracles for our revolutionary forefathers; who, I ask, could believe that this interposition was made in behalf of a people to be known only as cunning workers in wood and iron, whose flag should represent only a vast accumulation of worldly wealth — a wealth built upon human misery — to accomplish which we had gravely announced through our highest tribunals to the world that we had four millions of subjects lying outside the sympathies of our people who had no rights a government was bound to respect? The man who could believe that is an infidel of the meaner sort, whose poor brain is in keeping with his barren heart.
It was not so designed. The Almightly has written upon all his works that a lie cannot live, and truth alone is immortal. The plague spot had to extirpated, or our people die with it. Through the long years of this apparently peaceful prosperity the South was rapidly relapsing into savage barbarism, while at the North manhood was silently being sucked from our hearts.
We had extended our dominion from sea to sea; we had changed the song of the wild bird to the busy hum of human life; we had built great cities, peopled vast solitudes, and spread the canvas of our commerce over every seal and all this while we were sinking our spiritual nature and driving the heroic from our souls.
The war was a necessity. We had attempted to live down the edicts of the Almighty and the hand of death was on us. Thomas Jefferson had written that all men were born equal, and in the prophetic agony of his great soul he foretold ruin to his people for the attempt to deny what God had decreed. Better this fearful war, better these dark fields of carnage, better the ruined homestead and wide-spread desolation, than a life of dishonor, where decay comes in advance of death, and we move and crawl in sickening rottenness.
Save that we may go through the fiery ordeal and come out purified, let us take no credit to ourselves. The course of human events written of by Jefferson moves on beyond our control. We cannot change and, above all, we cannot stop their march, or take in our own hangs our destiny. I read of a German who, being shown the Rhine near its source, put his huge foot across the rivulet, and as he dammed the stream remarked to his companions, “won’t they wonder down there when it ceases to run.” So, now, other simple minded men are putting their feet in this stream of events, and are expecting that the great river below will cease to run.
This flag presentation, the first in the history of this war, happens fortunately in Baltimore. On this spot it has a strange significance. Here was first composed the great national hymn to our banner that must go ringing down the aisles of time, so long as its stars and stripes are beautiful in our eyes, and its blood-stained folds dear to out memories. Here in Baltimore, the flag has associations dearer, purer and sweeter than elsewhere. Here we have brave hearts and stout arms to defend it, and here, above all places, then, is the spot to fling it out brighter and dearer for the truths it again promulgates.
After the speeches a salute of thirty-six guns were fired, cheers given, and the crowd dispersed.
Excerpted from LOCAL MATTERS The Sun (1837-1987); Jul 21, 1863; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Baltimore Sun, The (1837-1987) pg. 1. Link.
I was thrilled this morning to discover the April 15, 1939 entry from H.L. Mencken’s diary sharing an account of visiting the modest rowhouse on West Lexington Street where he was born in 1880. Mencken observed the blocks to the north being torn down for the development of the Poe Homes which broke ground later that year on October 11, 1939. New Deal slum clearance history and H.L. Mencken history? This is my lucky day.
“In going through some old bills I found the other day that the house I was born in was No. 380 W. Lexington street in 1880. I wrote to the Appeal Tax Court asking the present number and was informed that it is now 811. This morning I went down to Lexington street to have a look. I found a pleasant little three-story house, directly opposite a slum area that is being cleared off under the Federal housing scheme. The door of the place was open, and inside I found a colored man on a stepladder and a white man on another. The colored man told me that he was the new owner of the place. He had been living in his own house in the slum area, but the government had now condemned it. He told me that the price he got for it was considerably less than his investment. He had used the money to buy No. 811 and was now engaged in rehabilitating it. He was scraping the accumulated wallpaper off the parlor walls, and the white man, a plasterer, was patching the holes that this work revealed. The colored man seemed to be a very intelligent and decent fellow. He told me that he hoped some day to put in a central heating plant, and I was tempted to offer him the price. I’ll probably go back and see him at some time in the near future.
Fifteen or twenty years ago my mother pointed out the house to me, but after her death I could no longer identify it. It is a three-story building in a sad state of disrepair. When I was born in it West Lexington street was almost suburban. There were trees all along both curbs, and the roadway was hardly more than a country road. The whole neighborhood has been given over to Negroes for many years, and has steadily and rapidly deteriorated. As I have said, the block opposite has been condemned as one of the worst slums in Baltimore, and is to be pulled down and rebuilt. This condemnation apparently took no account of the fact that the colored man now renovating No. 811 owned his own house and made diligent efforts to keep it in repair. In even the worst slum areas there are plenty of such men. All the older streets of Baltimore show their thrift and industry. Unfortunately, their neighbors have deteriorated so vastly that their houses become almost uninhabitable. This poor man not only got an insufficient price for his own house; he was also compelled to pay an exaggerated price for his new one, for the rebuilding operations across the street will augment its value. He is one of the forgotten men who always suffer when schemes of uplift are afoot.”
While researching Jewish history in northwest Baltimore for a bike tour next weekend, I came across another interesting story from the history of Baltimore cycling – the story of a Park Circle bicycle shop (still operating in Baltimore County and Columbia as Princeton Sports) that did a brisk business renting bicycles to Jewish families and children around Druid Hill Park.
Lucille and Samuel Davis arrived in Baltimore from Princeton, New Jersey in 1936 and opened the Princeton Cycle Company at 3301 Park Circle renting single-speed, foot-braked Schwinn cruisers to individuals and couples around Druid Hill Park. In Jewish Baltimore: A Family Album (2000), Gilbert Sandler sketches a warm picture of the corner – a busy streetcar junction with an A&W Hot Shoppe, a Little Tavern Hamburger, and Mr. Davis’s Cycle Shop:
On Sunday mornings, the neighborhood’s young people would rent bikes from Mr. Davis’s Cycle Shop. By ten o’clock on any fine sunny Sunday morning, all of Mr. Davis’s bicycles were rented out, including his only “bicycle built for two.” The cyclers rode every path of the park, down to what is now the Reptile House, past the Zoo up to what teenagers knew as “Prospect Hill,” and as far as the tennis courts and swimming pool.
Just a couple years after opening their shop, they won a concession from the Baltimore Parks Department to open a bicycle rental stand near Druid Lake, then – like today – a popular area for cycling. The stand remained open through 1947 renting bikes by the day or the hour. In Glimpses of Jewish Baltimore (2012), Sandler quotes an interview with Samuel and Lucille’s son – Bernard “Sonny” Davis:
I started working there when I was eight years old — my father opened at Park Circle in 1936 and left the area in 1951. At our Park Circle shop we had as many as fifty bikes out at one time — and far more at our location in Druid Hill Park near the reservoir. We charged twenty-five cents an hour, and we were the first in our business to offer bikes with training wheels so kids and moms could keep up with dads.Amazingly, we did big business after 11:00 pm, when the waiters and waitresses getting of work at the Hot Shoppe would start their midnight bike riding in the park.
The center of Baltimore’s Jewish community continued to move northwest and the couple moved with it – closing their Park Circle shop in 1951 and re-opening as a sporting goods store on Park Heights Avenue in 1952. When Samuel Davis died in 1963, “Sonny” Davis and his mother, Lucille continued the business – moving the shop to Falls Road in Baltimore County in 1970. In 1981, Sonny’s own son Alan Davis came on to open a new location in Columbia. I’d love to reach out to the family at some point and learn more about the history of the original shop – the building still stands as far as I can tell but it feels like there is more to the story than has been told here.