As a housing reporter at The Baltimore Banner, I’ve spent a lot of my first couple months living in Baltimore meeting with tenants, homeowners and community leaders in different neighborhoods across the city. It’s my favorite part of my job for a lot of reasons, including that these meetings are a great excuse to explore the beautiful, unique, and sometimes just plain weird built environment of the neighborhoods my sources call home.
These visits have also taught me the important lesson that walking is the safest way for me to take in the city — so my regular double-takes don’t cause any accidents.
Here are some of the most intriguing bits of Baltimore’s idiosyncratic architecture that have stopped me in my tracks so far, and what I’ve been able to learn about them.
“The polyester of brick,” “gray, lifeless stuff,” “something honorable in our heritage”: The city’s iconic faux-stone facades have won a number of distinctions over the years — not all positive, but all certainly impassioned. My journey down an imitation-stone-clad rabbit hole sent me into the heart of the enduring debate between the material’s boosters and detractors.
Formstone was initially a brand name, coined by Albert Knight in 1937, whose company promoted the stucco coating to owners of the city’s many brick rowhomes as a low-cost, long-lasting and easy-to-maintain weatherproofing exterior. The sales pitch worked, and by the 1950s Formstone was ubiquitous around the city, and especially in certain working-class neighborhoods like Highlandtown and Pigtown, transforming Baltimore into the Formstone capital of the world.
Many preservationists rebelled, arguing that the coating damaged historic brick facades and trapped water vapor inside homes. Some historic neighborhoods even banned its installation. A large section of a 1982 issue of the Old House Journal titled “Removing Formstone & Other Indignities” laid out a step-by-step process to “unmask your building.”
But others have defended the material as a historic feature of Baltimore’s working-class neighborhoods, and some, like iconic Formstone enthusiast John Waters, have even claimed it as a postmodern art form.
The debate came to a head once again in 2012 when a proposed overhaul of Baltimore’s zoning code threatened to ban faux-stone facades on any newly constructed rowhouses. But the proposal failed, and, for better or worse — and true to the Formstone investors’ promise — the stuff lasts.
Clifton Park Valve House
Passing this one on my way into Baltimore when I visited before moving was one of my first indications that Baltimore is a weird place, and probably one that I would have a fun time getting to know. After winding my way through the golf course (also weird), I was greeted by what appeared to be a crumbling Gothic cathedral on my left, which I puzzled over for another ten minutes before I made a pit stop for gas and, more importantly, googling.
I learned, thanks to the great resource Baltimore Heritage, that the enormous octagonal edifice was built in 1887 and once housed the machinery that operated Lake Clifton, which was then part of the city’s water supply. Large wheels underneath the floor of the Clifton Park Valve House regulated the flow of water from Lake Montebello to the north, which was connected by an underground pipe.
When the lake was filled in with the development of Lake Clifton High School in 1960s, the Valve House was abandoned and fell into disrepair. Plans by a private developer to restore the building in the early 2000s failed to materialize and the city continues to own the building. I’m going to propose to Baltimore Banner higher-ups that we consider purchasing it as our satellite office — stay tuned.
Luckily our friends at WYPR solved the mystery of Baltimore’s iconic marble steps last year. Maryland Curiosity Bureau producer Aaron Henkin spoke with a historian named Phillip Lord, who has been studying marble in Maryland for decades. He explained that the source of the marble abutting so many of Baltimore’s row houses is closer than you might expect: roughly 17 miles north at the Beaver Dam quarry and other nearby quarries in Cockeysville, and the nearby former town of Texas, Maryland.
Digging there began in the early 1800s, Henkin reported, when people noticed white marble popping out of the ground. By the middle of the century, teams of workers were excavating the marble using hand drills, hammers, and chisels. By the end of the century, the digging operation was in full swing, with steam-powered derricks and steam shovels carving 16-foot-long columns of marble. The marble was loaded onto ox-pulled wagons and then onto the Northern Central Railway cars for transport to the more than 140 marble vendors then operating in Baltimore.
You can still visit the quarry, but instead of your chisel, bring a bathing suit: the quarry was flooded in the 1930s and converted into the Beaver Dam Swimming Club.
I got to learn a bit about the history of Baltimore’s unique alley houses when I reported with my colleagues Hallie Miller and Adam Willis on the successful fight by residents of the Poppleton neighborhood to preserve 11 of these homes on Sarah Ann Street. The brightly colored historically African-American homes will be excluded from the sprawling residential and retail development slated for the neighborhood, and will instead be preserved by the community nonprofit Black Women Build-Baltimore.
While these small rowhomes and the street they sit on — too narrow to accommodate two passing cars — are now a rare feature of Baltimore’s landscape, they used to be remarkably common. Builders began constructing these homes — most are 10-12 feet wide and a couple of rooms deep — in the late 1700s as affordable, working-class housing. Larger, more expensive houses lined the exterior of the block, while these smaller homes hugged the interior alleys.
“You have low- and high-income people living all together, which is kind of a rare housing type these days,” Fred Scharmen, who teaches architecture and design at Morgan State University, told me when I asked him about his favorite features of Baltimore’s idiosyncratic architecture. “Built-in mixed income.”
While the city was home to thousands of these houses at its peak, decades of urban renewal policy and vacancies have left just an estimated few hundred still standing.
Biking around Druid Hill Park has quickly become one of my favorite things to do in Baltimore. So I was thrilled to encounter this strange fortress-like tower, like a lonely rook that got lost from the rest of the chessboard, and a phenomenal view of the city behind it when I tried to change up my morning route.
This thirty-foot-tall tower with eighteen-inch-wide solid marble (!) walls was built by George Frederick, a 19th-century architect responsible for a number of Baltimore landmarks, including City Hall, in 1870 (thanks again to Baltimore Heritage, my new favorite website.)
It was designed as an observation point, with a spiral staircase leading up to a deck to take in the view. But when the tower began to deteriorate, the interior was blocked off to visitors.
I hope someday the city will reopen the observation deck. But if that’s too much to ask, I at least look forward to the reservoir restoration finishing up soon so that my bike ride past the tower doesn’t dead end at a construction site.
The “painted ladies”
Moving here from New York City, I was eager to live in a neighborhood with as many porches as possible. My new neighborhood of Charles Village, and neighboring Abell, certainly doesn’t disappoint.
The “painted ladies,” as the colorfully painted rowhouses are called, were inspired by a contest in 1998 that sought to revitalize the neighborhood. Residents took up a paintbrush in exchange for cash prizes for best painted door, porch, and front facade, according to AIGA Baltimore, the city’s professional design association.
After a fire burned four Abell rowhomes in June, which residents believe was hate-related because the main house that caught fire flew a pride flag, many neighbors gave their painted ladies another colorful coat, hanging rainbow pride flags from their porches.
This story has been updated to include a photo of formstone.