The History of Baltimore Rowhouses (2023)

A lifelong resident of Baltimore, Dolores loves to share her interest in the historic spots of her beautiful and quirky home town.

The History of Baltimore Rowhouses (1)

Baltimore has more rowhouses than any other city in the United States. The long rows of brick catch the sun and seem to glow with that warmth we associate with home. Basement windows hold little dioramas with personal or religious themes, and painted screens turn narrow streets into outdoor art galleries.

A row house is much more than a line of attached homes. Before the advent of real estate speculation and planned developments, many homes were attached, forming rows. But a real rowhouse describes a large group of similar homes built at the same time by the same builder. The early 1900s saw large developments of these homes when builders created entire new neighborhoods.

The proliferation of these dwellings made Baltimore a city of homeowners. In the late 19th century, 70% of the population of the city owned their own homes. Practical, cozy, and attractive, these old homes are fuel-efficient as the sides of the homes are protected from the elements.

When I was a girl growing up in the late 1950s, my auntie's row house still had a coal bin and a basement kitchen that was warm in the winter and cool in the summer. The large end group house had a corner store in its high basement. Step over the marble lintel and into a small shop where the owner knows the names of all his customers, and the favorite ice cream flavors of the children.

Listen to the twitter of sparrows and the call of the arabber, the fruit seller with his horse and cart clattering up the alley, bells tinkling, the soft chatter of neighbors out on their stoops, the laughter of children as they run up the alley. You're in Bawlmer, hon!

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This 2 bay, 2 story rowhouse still has its stained glass above the window and front door.

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Affordable Housing-Ground Rent

Baltimore was laid out in 1729 as a shipping point for tobacco, and later grain products. Shipbuilding, grain mills, and associated mercantile attracted shipbuilders, carpenters, sea captains, sailors, and craftsmen. Those industries later brought in workers for packing houses, iron and steelworks, and factories. Everyone needed housing. The wealthy, the middle class, and the working class all lived in rowhouses.

Some were large, elegant homes with fan-lighted doorways and elaborate interior details, while others were simple four-room, two bay wide homes.

A system called ground rent made homeownership affordable. The concept of ground rent (as well as the row house style itself) came from England. When the eldest son of a noble class family inherited his father's land, he could not, by law, sell the property. The estate earned income from tenant farmers. As cities grew larger, land owners realized they could make more money by building and selling homes, but renting the land under the homes.

Today, the arcane system is still in place. Ground rents earned landowners a dependable 6% on their investment. The low annual payments were (and still are) easily affordable for homeowners.

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Bowed front row house with columns

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1790 to 1800

In 1796, flour merchants Thomas McElderry and Cumberland Dugan built long wharves in the area now known as the Inner Harbor. Row houses built right on the wharves stood 3 1/2 stories tall and featured hip roofs, dormer windows, and high English basements. The upper stories were residential while the high basement provided commercial space.

Builders and speculators began to erect similar rows of elegant homes with commercial space below and residential space in the upper stories. Many of these homes were quite grand, three bays wide with an entry hall, and two rooms deep with a kitchen wing or back building and pantry.

Up until 1799, nearly half of these buildings were made of wood until brick was stipulated by law. Very few of the old wooden homes survive.

From 1790 to 1800, the population of Baltimore doubled. Housing was needed for new arrivals in the prosperous shipping town. Houses built for workers and the lower classes rose to 2 1/2 stories and were 2 bays wide without the side hall featured in more upscale housing.

Grand homes were built along main thoroughfares while middle-class homes were built on side streets. The smallest houses were built on alleys with fanciful names like Happy Alley, Strawberry Alley, and Whiskey Alley. These smaller units were 17' wide with basement kitchens. Some 1 1/2 story houses were as small as 10 1/2' to 12' wide.

The smaller houses were often homes for Baltimore's large African American population which included freemen and slaves. At the time, rural owners hired out enslaved people to businessmen. Urban slaves had greater freedom than their rural counterparts as they lived without a master. Frederick Douglas claimed that the density of population prevented the abuse that rural isolation made more possible.

Freemen, hired out slaves, and white laborers of similar professions and economic station, lived on the small integrated blocks or alleys.

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Simple yet attractive 3 bay wide, 2 story rowhouses.

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Utilities in Early Dwellings

Fireplaces stood in most rooms of the grander row houses. It was not until the late 18th century that cast iron stoves provided heat. The large heating surface of stoves provided greater warmth than fireplaces. Coal replaced wood as an economical and efficient fuel.

Water came from hand pumps stationed along the streets. Upscale rows featured hand pumps in the back yards, thanks to a new reservoir created in 1807.

Before 1840, indoor plumbing was nonexistent. People used chamber pots. Night soil carters carried off the waste. Foul odors and disease, including typhoid and cholera, were common. In the mid-1800s, piped water became available by subscription, and water closets (a small room with a toilet) flushed into the harbor.

Greek Revival and Neoclassical

After the War of 1812, a new prosperity encouraged a building boom. The city became a manufacturing center, and in 1827, the Baltimore and Ohio Rail Road created new markets for manufacturers. Baltimore became a city of foundries, lumber mills, glassmakers, machine works, and by the 1840s, steam engine manufacturers.

Mount Vernon Place was built around the Washington Monument, built to memorialize George Washington. The beautiful monument based on a Greek doric column design influenced the construction of homes in the area.

Fashionable row houses built around small parks reflected simple, elegant Greek and neoclassical designs.

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Greek revival style

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After the plain facades of neoclassical designs, a new interest in ornamentation followed Victorian styles. Rowhouses in the mid-1800s featured elaborate designs including projecting cornices, tall narrow windows, and exterior ornamentation.

Romantic sensibilities and new building technologies introduced beautiful new designs. Cast iron structured frames allowed for taller buildings. Decorative cast-iron embellishments including columns, capitals, and window treatments could be assembled at a factory and carted to the construction site.

Even smaller homes featured the newer, more fashionable styles with tiled entry halls and vestibules. Average row houses featured stained glass door surrounds and transoms, stamped metal cornices, and tin ceilings in the kitchen. Edward Gallagher built modest versions of the finer Italianate homes in brown or red brick. The flat-roofed homes featured stamped designs on cornices.

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Queen Ann

Queen Anne style mixed architectural styles of the past and incorporated ideals of the Aesthetic Movement, a concept that rejected the mass production of the Industrial Revolution and Victorian tastes. Inspired by 16th and 17th-century English styles, builders borrowed cottage style forms including partial stucco and half-timbering along with red brick.

Picturesque Gothic style featured asymmetrical facades and windows, along with natural trim or first-floor facades made of stone.

Belvedere Terrace and Eutaw Place employed the concepts of craftsmanship and an appreciation of nature by using molded brick, colored glass, terra cotta panels, brownstone trim, and arched windows and doors. Undulating bow fronts and turrets reflected the aesthetic interest in medieval history.

Large homes offered a back garden that could be viewed from a large dining room window.

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The mixing of styles - Queen Anne Style

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Renaissance Revival

The Renaissance Revival of the late 19th century saw row houses with flat roof lines and white marble lintels and sills. Iron cornices decorated the roofs with swags of leaves and rosettes. Some swell fronts were interspersed with flat fronts, all with white marble steps from a nearby quarry.

In 1905, open porches were added to the front of the better row homes. As the elite moved out to single homes in suburban areas, builders attempted to offer owners similar options like the large, columned front porch with small front yards. Second-story bay windows with swags and decorated cornices made these homes beautiful.

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English cottage style featured slate roofs and varied building materials including half timbering in a beautifully landscaped setting.

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Early 20th Century

In the early 20th century, daylight row houses were two rooms deep so that all rooms but the bathroom had windows. As the middle and upper classes left the congestion of the city for suburban cottages, a new interest in natural beauty encouraged builders to compete by creating new styles.

English style groups of row houses offered landscaping, wide covered porches, steep slate roofs, Tudor style featured half-timbered stucco second stories, dormers, and varied entryways. Some of the cottage styles offered houses built out of several materials and included stucco, brick, and rock.

Edward Gallagher Jr. opened his new development called Ednor Gardens and used rock blasted from the building site in house designs. Picturesque roof lines, sun porches, and varied windows gave each home an individual look. During the housing boom of the 1920s, Gallagher and his sons offered homes with built-in garages.

Unlike row house developments of the past, corner houses no longer featured commercial space for a store or bar. New zoning regulations and development covenants ruled against commerce, additions, or changes made to outdoor trim color. Some covenants had racial restrictions in the deeds.

The Great Depression of the 1930s created a decline in home sales. Real estate values and housing development plummeted.

By the 1940s, World War II brought new jobs to large Baltimore employers like Bethlehem Steel and Glenn L. Martin. A new American neoclassical style based on colonial Williamsburg offered simple, inexpensive home designs with bay windows and wide-end units.

After World War II, the housing demand and the GI Bill's home loan program encouraged large-scale row house building in the suburbs in places like Loch Raven Village and Edmonson Avenue.

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Baltimore rowhouses in Ednor Gardens

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Late 20th Century Rehab

As Baltimore's oldest neighborhoods deteriorated due to age, overcrowding, and absentee landlords who neglected their properties, large areas of the city became derelict. The oldest neighborhoods, like the 120 to 170-year-old row houses in Federal Hill and Fells Point, became slums. By the late 1960s, some of the oldest houses near the waterfront were condemned in order to provide space for an extension to I-95. But a visionary group of preservationists petitioned the government for historical status and, in 1967, had Federal Hill and Fells Point listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It took 10 years to dissuade the government to move the path of the highway, but the movement drew attention to the historic Baltimore waterfront and sparked an urban renaissance for older city row homes.

Mayor William Donald Shaefer and Housing Commissioner Robert C. Embry offered up 5,000 abandoned houses for $1.00 apiece. A city development office offered technical and financial help with a city-backed loan program for the restoration of older homes.

Today, many of Baltimore's historic row house neighborhoods have become enclaves of young professionals. Real estate values in areas close to the water escalated and have remained high, even during economic downturns. Other row house neighborhoods around the city remain affordable, comfortable, and efficient choices in a variety of communities.

Questions & Answers

Question: I recently purchased a home on Odonnell St in Canton that was built in 1901. I could only trace deeds back to 1958. Do you know who made these rowhomes, or where I could find original drawings or sales contracts for these homes?

Answer: The Pratt Library offers a wealth of information on how to learn more about your house. You can visit in person or access information online. You can also research through the following:

Land Records Division of Baltimore City Courts

Baltimore Heritage Inc.

Baltimore City Historical Society

Baltimore Architecture Project

Maryland Land Records Database or database

Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation's Real Property Data Search

Good luck. Tracing the history of your old house sounds like a wonderful project. It may be time-consuming, but it would be wonderful to locate original paperwork or architectural drawings.

Question: I am negotiating a purchase of an Ephraim Macht and son Morris home on reservoir hill, do you have any information on 701 Druid Park Lake Drive?

Answer: Ephraim Macht and sons built around 8,000 homes in the Baltimore area. Macht Real Estate and Banking became Welsh Construction in 1911. Many Victorian homes are a mix of styles. The beautiful home on 701 is heavily influenced by the Romanesque Revival style, popular in the 1880s. Hallmarks of the style include lots of detail, a mix of building materials, rounded windows, or door arches that show an elegant, masculine style. (The Queen Anne style features a feminine look).

That is a beautiful building, especially the ornate pediment over the door.

To learn more about any particular house in Baltimore, check out the Enoch Pratt Free Library's page "Researching the History of Your House." The site offers links and research tips.

Question: What type of row homes are at the 1200 West Lafayette Avenue section and who would have lived in them. Did these homes originally have bathrooms?

Answer: The houses in the area of 1200 West Lafayette Ave. are all three bays wide. Some of the older ones may have been built in the Italianate style but have changed so much over the years that it's hard to see a style. The older homes were built in the 1920s. Bathrooms were usually included in houses built at that time. The other homes were built in the early 1990s and, of course, offered bathrooms.

You can learn more about the age of a house by contacting the Baltimore tax assessors office or by searching property records. Contact the Baltimore City courthouse to find out how you can learn about deeds or property records.

Question: When were the Queen Ann row houses on Baltimore Street adjacent to Patterson Park built?

Answer: Queen Anne houses were built in the late 1800's. For more information, you may want to contact the Baltimore City Historical Society.

Question: What style of homes are built in the 1100 block of Ellicott Drive in West Baltimore?

Answer: Most of the homes in that area appear to be built after World War II. A housing shortage demanded homes that could be built quickly and inexpensively. That mean few, if any, architectural accents. People were tired of what they saw as old fashioned including ornate styles and embelishments. Some refer to the style as neo-classical due to the clean lines and simplicity.

Question: What category of historic Baltimore houses do the row homes at 823 and 825 North Charles Street in the Mt. Vernon area fit into?

Answer: Looking at the house at 825, you can see the wide eaves, and deep decorated cornice typical of Italianate design. The tall, narrow windows with ornamental trim are also typical of the style. More ornamental than Greek Revival yet less ornamental than Queen Anne, the Italianate style was attractive and graceful. It was adaptable for homes for the elite as well as homes built for the middle class. The style was very popular in North American cities, particularly in the North East.

Question: What style of row houses are in the Madison Park neighborhood at the 2000 block of Madison Ave?

Answer: Looking at Google maps, I am not sure what houses you mean. I saw a large Queen Anne style house as well as several row houses in several styles.

The row houses with four steps to the stoop and rounded doorways seem Anglo-Italianate. Features of Italianate include tall, narrow windows, decorative projecting cornices, and double doors with rounded doorways. Many Italianate styles feature a high basement and many steps.

On the same block are what look like Queen Anne style with a mixture of building materials, mansard roofs, bay windows, and dormer windows at the top.

Familiarize yourself with architectural styles of row houses to get a better idea of what you are looking at. There are several online sites that describe row houses in New York as well as Baltimore. It doesn't matter where the house is when it is style you are attempting to understand.

Question: What style is 1227 W. Lafayette Avenue in Baltimore and did it originally have 2 bathrooms? Why were no bathrooms on the main floor of this Baltimore rowhouse?

Answer: Your house looks like it of Italianate design with newer windows. Older homes did not usually have bathrooms on the first floor or in the public areas of the house. They were upstairs on the floor with bedrooms. Some finer old homes may have had a small water closet for servants. The idea of lots of bathrooms in one home is a relatively new concept. Most older homes had one bathroom.

Question: Concerning the Baltimore Rowhouses, through your research did you perhaps come across what may have been located at 602 West North Ave? I have searched in vain and it is important to me to find out.

Answer: There are several ways that you can investigate a property's history in Baltimore. Some government agencies may charge a fee. You may first want to start with the library. Old maps of Baltimore including real estate maps can be found at the Pratt Library's Maryland Department.

You can also research a property at the Maryland State Archives Guide to Land Records. Also, the Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation provides records that will show a chain of ownership for a particular property since the first owners. Information includes a description of the property, land, and buildings as well as remodels on that building.

The City of Baltimore can help you find the information you seek from the land records division of the Baltimore Circuit Court.

Question: What category of historic Baltimore houses do the row homes on N.Bond St fit into?

Answer: As North Bond Street is quite long there are several types of row houses. Some feature three stories while others have two stories. Some are two bays wide while others are three bays wide

If you are talking about the homes with the pretty cornices, they are Italiante style. In the mid-1800s, people turned away from the plainer Greek style in favor of more ornamentation. Houses built for wealthier people featured deeper and more detailed cornices while homes built for working folks showed less detail.

Plainer homes, two stories tall and two bays deep were for working class people and had minimal design elements. Also, realize that houses this old may have been changed over the years. Fancy wood cornices, for instance, may have rotted or been removed and replaced by plainer cornices.

Question: Do you know anything about the houses in Poppleton particularly the three stories in the 300 blk North Carrollton Ave?

Answer: The houses in the 300 block North Carrolton Ave. in Baltimore were built in the Italianate or Ango-Italianate style. Italianate style was the most popular row house style from the mid 1800s to 1900. Characterized by beautiful, ornate cornices; tall, narrow windows; rounded or arched doorways; and heavy, projecting lintels, Italiante shows a graceful facade. Anglo-Italianate features similar attributes but has a lower stoop with 3 - 5 steps while Italianate has a taller stoop. The lintels are not as heavy with the Ango-Italianate style.

Some of the homes in that stretch of road are covered with Formstone, a type of faux stone made with concrete. There were many producers of the fake stone but Formstone itself was patented in 1937. John Waters once called it "the polyester of brick." While some folks detest the facade, others find it a charming, distinctive part of Baltimore heritage.

Removing Formstone can be a problem. While the removal itself is not too difficult, it's what's under it that can be troublesome. Sometimes, when they put the Formstone up, they removed prominent architectural features. The fake stone can often cover a multitude of problems like damaged or mismatched brick, or damaged masonry. The restoration can be difficult and costly.

© 2012 Dolores Monet

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