Row House - The History of Baltimore Rowhouses

Row House Style

Look at the varied facades, the arched window embellishments and balconies.
Look at the varied facades, the arched window embellishments and balconies. | Source

Baltimore Row House

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

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 row 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 row house developments when builders created entire new neighborhoods.

The proliferation of rowhouses made Baltimore a city of homeowners. In the late 19th century, 70% of the population of Baltimore owned their own homes. Practical, cozy, and attractive, Baltimore's old row homes are fuel efficient.

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 costumers, 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 this 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!

Baltimore Row House
Baltimore Row House | Source

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 ship builders, carpenters, sea captains, sailors, craftsmen, and later workers for packing houses, iron and steel works, and factories. Everyone needed housing. The wealthy, the middle class, and the working class all lived in rowhouses.

Some were elegant large homes with fan lighted doorways and elaborate interior details, while others were simple 4 room, two bay wide homes.

A system called ground rent made home ownership affordable, so possible for many Baltimoreans. The concept of ground rent (as well as the row house style itself) came from England. When the eldest son of noble class inherited his father's land, according to the laws of primogeniture, they 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 homes, selling the homes, but renting the land under the homes.

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

Baltimore Grand Rowhouse

Bowed front row house with columns
Bowed front row house with columns | Source

Baltimore Rowhouse - Alley Houses

These simple homes are on a very narrow street, once an alley.
These simple homes are on a very narrow street, once an alley. | Source

Baltimore Rowhouses 1790 - 1800

In 1796, flour merchants Thomas McElderry and Cumberland Dugan built long wharves in the area now knows as the Inner Harbor. Row houses built right on the wharves stood 3 1/2 stories 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 entry hall, and two rooms deep with a kitchen wing or back building and pantry.

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

From 1790 - 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 rowhouses were often homes for Baltimore's large African American population which included freemen and slaves. At the time, rural slave owners hired out slaves to Baltimore businessmen. Urban slaves had greater freedom than their rural counterparts living, as they did, 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.

Baltimore Rowhouses

Simple yet attractive 3 bay wide, 2 story rowhouses.
Simple yet attractive 3 bay wide, 2 story rowhouses. | Source

Rowhouse - Kitchen Extension in Back

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Utilities in Early Rowhouses

Fireplaces stood in most rooms of the grander row homes. 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 1800's, piped water became available by subscription, and water closets (a small room with a toilet) flushed into the harbor.

Mount Vernon Greek Revival Row Houses

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Rowhouse Styles - Greek Revival and Neoclassical

After the War of 1812, a new prosperity encouraged a building boom. Baltimore 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, glass makers, 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.

Old Tile Salvaged from a Row House

These beautiful old tiles once lined a rowhouse entryway or vestibule.
These beautiful old tiles once lined a rowhouse entryway or vestibule. | Source

Cast Iron Stair Rails and Window Cover

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Rowhouse Styles - Italianate

After the plain facades of neoclassical designs, a new interest in ornamentation followed Victorian styles. Rowhouses in mid 1800's featured elaborate designs including bold 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 row houses employed 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.

Baltimore Rowhouse Style - Italianate Circa 1875

Edward Gallagher built these modest versions of Italianate style homes so that people of average means could afford to live in style.
Edward Gallagher built these modest versions of Italianate style homes so that people of average means could afford to live in style. | Source

Baltimore Rowhouse - Queen Anne Style

The mixing of styles
The mixing of styles

Rowhouse Baltimore - Picturesque

Look at the varied roof line, windows, and facade of these beautiful homes.
Look at the varied roof line, windows, and facade of these beautiful homes. | Source

Row House Style - Queen Ann 1870's

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. From 16th and 17th English styles, builders borrowed cottage style forms including partial stucco, 1/2 timbering along with red brick.

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

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 Aesthetics interest in medieval history.

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

Baltimore Rowhouse on Calvert Street

Large porches and second story bow front windows make these row homes very attractive.
Large porches and second story bow front windows make these row homes very attractive. | Source

Renaissance Revival 1890's

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 tops of row houses 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 rowhouse 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.

Baltimore Rowhouse - English Cottage Style

Slate roofs, and varied building materials including half timbering in a beautifully landscaped setting.
Slate roofs, and varied building materials including half timbering in a beautifully landscaped setting. | Source

Baltimore Rowhouses - English Cottage Style

Two story rowhouses with varied entryways, windows, and roof lines.
Two story rowhouses with varied entryways, windows, and roof lines. | Source

Baltimore Rowhouse - Ednor Gardens

All stone rowhouses with slate roof and sun porch.
All stone rowhouses with slate roof and sun porch. | Source

Baltimore Row Houses of the Early 20th Century

In the early 20th century, daylight row houses were 2 rooms wide 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 half timbered stucco second stories, dormers, and varied entryways. Some of the cottage styles offered row 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 built-in racial restrictions in the deeds.

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

By the early 1940s, the War in Europe 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.

The middle class moved to single homes outside the city while inner city high rise housing projects crowded low income people into large prison-like structures that warehoused the poor. A declining industrial base caused large scale job loss for the working class in Baltimore.

Baltimore Rowhouse in Ednor Gardens

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Post War Rowhouses in Baltimore

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Fells Point

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Late 20th Century Row House Re-Hab

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, 120 - 170 year old row houses in Federal Hill and Fells Point became slums. By the late 1960s, some of the oldest row 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.

Then Mayor William Donald Shaefer and Housing Commissioner Robert C. Embry offered up 5,000 abandoned houses for $1.00 a piece. 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 the recent economic downturn. Other row house neighborhoods around the city remain affordable, comfortable, efficient choices in a variety of communities.

Baltimore's Painted Screens

Painted screens helped homeowners to see out while passers-by couldn't see in.
Painted screens helped homeowners to see out while passers-by couldn't see in. | Source

Rows of houses on narrow streets provided little privacy. In the days before everyone had air conditioning, screens were the best way to cool a home in hot summer months. But passersby could look right into the lower rooms. Many people who lived in row houses began to paint the screens on first floor windows and on door screens. The attractive designs of painted screens added beauty to a home and created a new sense of privacy. People passing on the sidewalk could not see into the home, but the homeowners could see out the windows.

The 2600 of Wilkins Avenue has the longest stretch of row houses in the United States and some claim in the world

Hampden's Annual Christmas Display

© 2012 Dolores Monet

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Comments 19 comments

Vanderleelie profile image

Vanderleelie 4 years ago from New Brunswick, Canada

A colourful account of the history of row houses and their architectural styles. It is a very practical way to use urban land and create comfortable, human-scale neighbourhoods without overcrowding. I am pleased to read that groups have lobbied to save some of the residential heritage of the city of Baltimore, and that the formerly run-down row houses have been restored. An excellent hub!


Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 4 years ago from East Coast, United States Author

Vanderleelie - in bygone years, the streets were tree lined. While some still are, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake is pushing to add more trees. Yay! Thank you. The great thing about row houses is that you have that insulation of the other homes on both sides of you. I remember when I was a kid, you'd go into one of those old homes with no AC, but it would feel quite cool. They'd open the basement door, or a downstairs window, and place a fan blowing out in an upper window, blowing out the heat and drawing up the cooler air below. It really worked well.

Thank you!


Momheck 4 years ago

Wow,brought back my memories of growing up in a row home. Scrubbing marble steps brought some cash at .50 each, everyone wanted the whitest steps. Arabbers coming down the alley hollering "Get yer watermelons, sooooft craabs" Very nice research!


Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 4 years ago from East Coast, United States Author

Hi Momheck - all those white marble steps, some still look so pretty... I think they shut down the stables due to poor conditions some years back. Recently heard people talking about reviving the practice only using trucks like the lunch wagons that are so popular. Talk about food deserts, where in parts of the city you just can't find fresh food, this would be great. Thanks for stopping in!


Matt C 3 years ago

I really enjoyed reading this article which I found on google. I am currently looking at buying a rowhome and do a little rehabing myself. I am a little shocked you did not mention formstone in the article. Or maybe I missed it?


Tiger Torre 2 years ago

Dolores, I've been researching Baltimore rowhouses and their history in order to learn more about my own. Imagine my surprise when I found your article, and the very first picture is a stunning photo of MY house! Thanks for the article, and I wonder if it's possible to get a print of the photo?


Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 2 years ago from East Coast, United States Author

Matt C - I had actually thought of including formstone, but thought that I had so much information, I didn't want to get bogged down. Formstone could be a whole article itself! (I am no fan of it) Thanks for your comment.


Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 2 years ago from East Coast, United States Author

Tiger Torre - NO WAY! Can't you just copy it and then print it out or have it printed somewhere else for a quality print? If you want to copy it from Google images, just type the first line into the search box, then hit images and there it is!


Ron Stichion 16 months ago

Great post Delores,

As a young school boy in Highlandtown, I went to P.S. # 3 on Eastern and Montford. I would always walk through the park (Patterson Park) to and from school everyday and was always fascinated by the Queen Ann row homes on East Baltimore Street across from the park.

It was always a fond wish to see the interiors of these magnificent homes and learn who their original owners were. Any info on these homes?


Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 16 months ago from East Coast, United States Author

Ron Stichion - Hi Ron, are you the one who shared this on FB? If so thank you. I love the old Baltimore photographs and it's a great way to share pics of our city's history. Anyway, about the property owners, I do think you can look into land and property records for the city, pretty sure that's public information. Good luck!


Diane Hewitt White 13 months ago

Our row home had a coal bin in the basement. The coal company placed a shute thru the window to deliver coal. We had front marble steps, which had to be scrubbed frequently.I was paid 10 cents to scrub neighbors steps. We had an oak ice box, and the iceman delivered ice four days a week.


Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 13 months ago from East Coast, United States Author

Diane Hewitt White - thanks for sharing. My relatives also had a coal bin. In the 1960s, there was still some coal there and my father would take me back to look at it. Fascinating. They had an oak ice box too, they used it to store linens. I love the similarities!


Sharon Klusek 12 months ago

Would you have any pictures of the row houses that existed where the Aquarium is now on light street. My grandfather had two row houses and one was a bar in the 40's.


Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 12 months ago from East Coast, United States Author

Sharon - none of my pix are historic. I took them all. So no, I would not. Maybe you should look into the Baltimore Historical Society or The Sun archives for pictures of those houses. Good luck on your hunt for pictures!


Maria 8 months ago

These houses are beautiful. It would be a great city if they could all be restored. They are very colorful.


Dsorgnized profile image

Dsorgnized 8 months ago from Florida

I grew up in Baltimore in a house built in 1850. One of the homes built for the cotton mill workers. It was not a row house specifically but a corner house with only one other house attached. It was built of stone. My parents rented for years and I found out later the landlady never raised the rent in all the years we lived there. It was $52.00 per month. My dad worked in a tire and rubber plant down the street. I loved your article. Love the history of my hometown.


Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 7 months ago from East Coast, United States Author

Maria - so it would. But many of the abandoned houses are beyond repair. They could be removed for green space! I like to shop at salvage stores and have seen a lot of hardware, tile, ceiling panels, etc. from demolished row homes. And it is sad. We would have less problems with these empty houses if there were more jobs with a living wage here. Thanks!

Dsorgnized - sounds like a lovely house! I hope it's still there and in good shape!


Dsorgnized profile image

Dsorgnized 7 months ago from Florida

It is still there and appears to be in great shape. Just a shame though that the corner it sits on seems to be where drug buys take place.


Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 7 months ago from East Coast, United States Author

Dsorganized - that is a shame. The deterioration of the city comes along with job loss. In the past, there were many jobs for the working class. Places like Bethlehem Steel, Crown Cork and Seal and others offered a living wage. These days, if you don't have a college education, there are slim pickings.

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