The Baltimore Rowhouse

This week, I finished The Baltimore Rowhouse, by Mary Ellen Hayward and Charles Belfoure, which traces the development of the rowhouse from its English origins on up through the present day. Many cities have certain architectural types -- New York is a city of apartments, Chicago a city of three-flats, and Los Angeles a city of bungalows -- but the rowhouse, more than any other typology, has come to define the architectural, social, and economic fabric of Baltimore. 

Rowhouse construction began in earnest in Baltimore in the 1820s. Narrow (12-14' wide) homes were packed into tight blocks in what is now downtown, the Inner Harbor, and Fells Point. Two concepts from England -- connected superblocks of housing with shared party walls and the idea of "ground rent" instead of land ownership -- spurred development. Ground rent allowed someone to own a house, but not the land it sat on, instead renting the land from a landlord into perpetuity. Ground rents, in turn, could be packaged, sold, and traded amongst landowners, a kind of early derivative investment. Much like mobile homes today, removing the cost of the land from the purchase price made houses much cheaper upfront. Built on a speculative basis, most of the houses sold to people of limited means -- sailors, shipbuilders, shopkeepers, and carpenters. Efficient use of land kept the city from expanding beyond a walkable radius, key in an era before public transportation or widespread private vehicle ownership.

 Foggy rowhouses along narrow Colonial streets in Fells Point by Patrick Joust.

Foggy rowhouses along narrow Colonial streets in Fells Point by Patrick Joust.

These two early characteristics of Baltimore housing -- ground rent and speculative building -- have defined development in the city ever since. Horse-drawn streetcars came online just before the Civil War, allowing people to build further and further from downtown. Large, three-story rowhouses made of marble and brownstone, went up in Mount Vernon to serve a richer clientele. Slightly wider (16', three-bay) units expanded to the east and west to serve the middle class. And, as always, the poor and recently immigrated filled the oldest, narrowest homes vacated by folks moving further out from the crowded city center. 

Second- and third-generation landowners, having inherited large estates from their fathers, saw that the sale of ground rents was much more profitable than farming. The McHenrys, Pattersons, Abells, and Howards -- all famous names in town, even today -- sold large swaths to speculative developers, who in turn put up huge developments surrounding parks. Homes facing the parks, with marble trim, transom windows, and stamped-metal cornices, were the widest and most expensive. Homes on the streets perpendicular to the parks, with no view, were slightly narrower and cheaper. Houses facing the interior alleys of each block were the smallest and least expensive, with simple wooden stairs and no amenities. 

 Hughes Company rows, Canton, ca. 1905. Via Maryland Historical Society. 

Hughes Company rows, Canton, ca. 1905. Via Maryland Historical Society. 

By the 1880s, America's manufacturing economy had surpassed Britain's. Baltimore was at the center of this boom, with massive mills churning out pins, needles, glass bottles, textiles, bricks, milled lumber, and canned food. The growth of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad spurred development of a steel industry that made rails, wheels, railroad cars, and steam engines. Workers came to the city in droves, driving the city past half a million residents in 1900. In 1904, the Great Baltimore Fire burned 1,500 buildings, causing a massive housing shortage. Electric streetcars with nickel fares and massive developers building with borrowed money stepped into the breach, building huge quantities of housing until the Great Depression crunched the credit market. 

The rowhouse evolved architecturally in response to market pressures, building technologies, and changing demographics. As blocks pushed north, developers aped their suburban competitors by pushing front walls back from the curb, replacing stoops with porches, and cutting L-shaped notches out of the back of the homes to allow windows in every room. Small backyards with basement garages accommodated the newly-popular automobile. Older, cheaper homes were retrofitted with oil-fired furnaces and indoor toilets. In 1937, Albert Knight Sr. patented Formstone, a cementitious faux-stone facade treatment that prevented moisture from seeping through porous old brick. The weird color palette and textural pattern became synonymous with a certain kind of Baltimore kitsch.

 Formstone block, via the Atlantic Cities blog.

Formstone block, via the Atlantic Cities blog.

Baltimore's manufacturing job base and population peaked in the 1960s, and the city has slowly depopulated ever since. Vacants, numbering somewhere around 16,000, now dot the landscape. With connected party walls, a few unoccupied houses can infect a whole block with vermin, fire hazards, and structural deficiencies. Targeted demolitions are being planned as part of the city's  Vacants to Value program. Guerilla street artists are working to mark neglected properties in order to shame slumlords into action. Recognizing the folly of mass low-income housing, Baltimore's projects (The Wire's infamous high-rises) were replaced with rowhouses in the late nineties, bringing housing patterns full circle

Rowhouses, flawed as they are, have several advantages -- they make for intensely walkable communities; small size and the ground rent system make them affordable; occupants have the advantage of a (small) yard and no upstairs neighbors; and, when fully occupied, the blocks make vibrant, sustainable communities. Jane Jacobs, in The Life and Death of Great American Cities, identifies several key factors for vibrancy: high pedestrian permeability, mixed use, density, and the sense that one is being observed by one's neighbors, which prevents delinquency and promotes a sense of civic order. Rowhomes have the potential to fulfill those roles once more, but they are only part of a comprehensive set of problems, mostly predicated on the lack of economic opportunity.

I have just started another book, Made in the U.S.A.: The Rise and Retreat of American Manufacturingby Vaclav Smil, which argues that American manufacturing is never going to be replaced by a purely high-tech service economy. While Bethlehem Steel and General Motors brought some of their own problems to town, their revenues also built Baltimore, and the loss of those jobs over the last half-century continues to be felt all across town. Some folks are out there closing the loop, mining that architectural history and transforming it into something new, the seeds of a new manufacturing economy.

But can it grow big enough . . . ?

 A lonely Baltimore rowhouse, from Ben Marcin's series Last House Standing.

A lonely Baltimore rowhouse, from Ben Marcin's series Last House Standing.