We have a problem with vacant houses in Baltimore. Part two of two.

This is Part Two of my paper for the Vernacular Architecture Forum Conference in Chicago. Part one is located here. This particular section is adapted from another post I published last summer.

A final example from 1910 illustrates the difficulty that many residents and elected official experienced in trying to come to terms with the causes of vacant  houses. Some observers clearly saw how suburban growth at the periphery and disinvestment from the core drove Baltimore’s emerging vacant house problem. However, then and perhaps now, anxiety over high property taxes, worries over diminished property values and white supremacy largely defined the terms of the debate. Rather than challenge the enormous public subsidies for suburban growth or encourage more substantial investment in the maintenance of older city neighborhoods (by then occupied largely by recent immigrants and African Americans), the city instead fought vacancy by writing racism into local housing laws.

In August 1910, a member of the real estate firm of William Martien & Company who shared a growing “agitation over the number of vacant houses in the city,” asked the Baltimore Police board to undertake a “complete census of the number of houses, both vacant and occupied in the city.” With the release of the report, real estate agent James Cary Martien argued, “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.”

Martien’s focus on housing supply and demand neglected to account for the intense concern that many Baltimoreans had with racial segregation – advancing the necessity of segregation on the principle of white supremacy and the economic logic of preserving property values. In the weeks that followed the publication of the report, a series of letters to the Sun expanded on Martien’s summary and tied vacancy closely to the perceived threat of “negro invasion.”

For example, when some residents argued that high taxes contributed to housing abandonment, one northwest Baltimore resident wrote back under the name “Pure White” arguing that the “negro neighbor is the main reason.” The letter, published on August 27, 1910, continued:

“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. […] 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, a letter signed by “Justice” echoed this sentiment and with a demand that the city to protect his neighborhood from “invasion” and vacant houses writing:

“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.”

A third resident, writing on September 15, 1910, framed the issue as clearly distinct from the seasonal vacancy of the past several decades or vacancy created by the passing uncertainty of a transitioning neighborhood:

“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.”

Residents like “Pure White” and “Justice” won a victory on December 20, 1910, when Baltimore Mayor John Barry Mahool signed into law the West Segregation Ordinance, named for sponsor Council Samuel L. West who represented the northwestern neighborhood highlighted in the police report for the highest concentration of vacant houses.

The new law was the first local ordinance in the country to enforce racial segregation in housing as it forbid black residents from moving to designated “white blocks” and white residents from moving to designated “colored blocks.” Each block was designated according to the racial identity of the majority of each block’s residents in 1910 and the city police were tasked with enforcing the new policy.

While the West Segregation Ordinance was soon overturned as unconstitutional, it was followed by several more  attempts to enact a municipal law to enforce racial segregation. Often overlooked in this much-discussed chapter of Baltimore’s history of segregation, vacant housing played a critical role in stoking white fears and reinforcing a racialized perception of “blight” in the decades that followed.

The effort to promote racial segregation ultimately did little to address the structural issues around taxes and infrastructure costs that continued to promote disinvestment up until the beginning of WWI. This period also saw the emerging concern with the visibility of vacant houses as a symbol of the city’s perceived decline.  One letter, published on on March 5, 1912 and signed by “Belle Baltimore,” decried the sight of vacant houses as the city prepared to celebrate the Centennial of the Battle of Baltimore in 1914:

“While we are cleaning house to welcome visitors to Baltimore in June, there is one very offensive spectacle we should strive to remove. It is the sight of so many residences on our best avenues, vacant, dead and decaying houses, with staring, grimy windows covered with signs ‘For Rent’ or ‘For Sale,’ like ghastly invitations to a funeral.”

“Belle Baltimore” continued to complain about burdensome taxes required to support the investment in the suburban Annex where  “speculative builders” erected “row of these sardine boxes” that make Baltimore “more and more like a model workhouse or prison every year.” The letter concludes with a tone of finality:

“To escape unjust taxation people of means are taking refuge in apartments or in the suburbs…. Does not this state of things savor a little of the knights of the road, who became popular heroes by ‘robbing the rich to serve the poor?’ One thing is certain: Well-to-do people will shun cities infested by such gentry. Because of it Baltimore is already like a tree rotten at the core.”

In 1914, with the start of World War II, debates over vacant housing retreated as the home building industry ground to near complete halt. Construction permits for new dwellings in Baltimore dwindled from 2,484 in 1916, to 885 in 1917, and just 378 in 1918. During World War II, concern over blight often focused on housing “congestion” rather than vacancy, although clearly the issue remained present. After World War II, and throughout the period of urban renewal into the 1970s, the predecessors of today’s vacant house policies took shape. Over the past few decades, the scale and scope of issues around vacant houses has continued to grow.

Lansing Street demolition, Amy Davis, 2013 September 24. Baltimore Sun
Lansing Street demolition, Amy Davis, 2013 September 24. Baltimore Sun

Today, advocates for historic preservation and community development struggle to secure public support for substantial reinvestment in historic urban cores. Legacy city leaders from Detroit to Cleveland to Baltimore have retreated from what seemed to be an unattainable agenda of regional governance and adequate funding for affordable housing. Instead, we see strategic demolition and “blight elimination” championed as a short-term necessity in neighborhoods like Sandtown Winchester.

Just as the city experienced a century ago, many people want to define the city’s challenges as a “vacant house problem” – locating the issue in low-income African American communities alone. This definition places the sole responsibility to solve to problem on those residents, rather than acknowledging the complicity of Baltimore’s broader system of spatial inequality. Let’s work to make sure the next century offers a new definition of the “vacant house problem” and a new set of solutions.

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After the demolition of Tusculum in 1891 “bits of its woodwork were eagerly gathered up for souvenirs”

Tusculum, 1891
Photograph of Tusculum, c. 1891. Maryland Historical Society, [SVF] via MdHS Photographs Tumblr

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.”


Sources: “A Noted Old Dwelling Torn Down,” The Sun (1837-1988), January 27, 1891; “Remembering A Literary Lane,” Baltimore Sun, February 10, 1991, Carleton Jones.