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Charmed Life

Lunch Pail Utopia

Christopher Myers

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 1/29/2003

When the term "planned community" comes up, I figure most folks instantly think of Columbia, the Rouse Co.'s leafy--albeit impenetrably Byzantine--suburb that began sprawling across Howard County in the early 1960s. Few people probably think of Dundalk, which actually trumped Columbia in the planning game by some 40 years. The historic core of this southeast Baltimore County community was not only painstakingly planned and designed but was done so by some of the same artisans and developers who created Baltimore City's tony Roland Park. (Indeed, Dundalk was once billed as "the workingmen's Roland Park.") The Nose touched on this very topic a few weeks back when discussing a group of Dundalkians exploring ways to improve their community's dented image (The Nose, Jan. 8).

Dundalk had always been a closed book to me. As a city boy, it's a little off my radar. Seeing how it's perched on a peninsula, you won't just happen upon it en route to somewhere else. To see Dundalk you have to make a special trip, which is exactly what I did on a recent frigid afternoon--but not before loading up on Dundalk facts and figures at the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

First things first: The origin of the town's somewhat clunky name. Some have speculated that this guttural moniker might be a source of the ribbing the community gets in some circles. "Dundalk" is a rather ungraceful mouthful--lacking the staid dignity of, say, Essex or even Halethorpe. But it's a proud, old name nonetheless--indeed it goes back some 1,200 years. Our Dundalk is named after Dundalk, Ireland, a port town 50-odd miles north of Dublin. The appellation is an Anglicized version of "Dun-Dealgan,'' Gaelic for "the fort of Dealga,'' a fabled fortress near the Irish town (and for those into Celtic mythology, Dealga is said to be home to the great warrior Cuchulainn).

This bit of bastardized Gaelic came to the shores of the Patapsco in 1895, when William McShane erected a pipe foundry on the peninsula. When asked by the local railroad what to call his factory's freight stop, William offered up Dundalk, his father Henry's birthplace across the Atlantic. (Henry McShane landed in Baltimore in 1856, and founded a famous bell foundry that survives to this day--albeit in Glen Burnie.)

The environs were pretty sleepy in McShane's day, but they sprang to life in 1916 when the expansion-minded Bethlehem Steel firm bought out the Maryland Steel Co. facility in nearby Sparrows Point. The Dundalk Co. was formed as a Beth Steel subsidiary to develop 1,000 bucolic Dundalk acres into a blue-collar bedroom community. (Many of the folks in this firm had been involved with the earlier Roland Park Co.) The project was fast tracked in 1918, when the U.S. government took over construction to expedite the creation of war-worker housing, but Dundalk's development returned to private hands once peace returned to Europe. A 1920s newspaper ad aimed at home-seeking steel workers billed burgeoning Dundalk as a "Spotless town designed by one of our foremost architects, scientifically and substantially built and modern in every respect."

The fruits of these early development efforts are still there, still quite handsome, and in 1983 were collectively designated a national historic district. A trio of shopping-center buildings--shops on the first floor, apartments above--form the area's nucleus. The northernmost of these structures, designed by noted Baltimore architect Edward Palmer, sports a steeply pitched slate roof, lending it a Tudor-esque feel. It calls to mind the hoary shopping center in the 4800 block of Roland Avenue. While the buildings seem sound, much of the shop space is vacant. And I was particularly perturbed to see the Strand--the community's old-school movie palace--doing duty as a dollar store.

The shopping venue fronts a park--a sort of village green--and is surrounded by gracefully meandering streets lined with trim rowhouses and cottages. The steeply raked slate roof seems to have been a favorite motif. Tudor? French Eclectic? Perhaps "picturesque" is the best way to describe the sturdy collection of housing. To wander the Dundalk district is to conclude that quality design and sound construction, at least back in the day, were not the exclusive provenance of the well-to-do.

Alas, when the onset of World War II kick-started Dundalk's next lengthy building boom, the drawing boards and design standards were seemingly tossed aside. A hodgepodge of housing styles spilled over the erstwhile farmland. "It grew without a plan, without a pattern," the Evening Sun wrote of Dundalk in 1963, "And this is a sin." Indeed, the bulk of Dundalk is a rather incongruous assortment of modest bungalows and brick rowhouses. While nothing of second-generation Dundalk calls to mind Roland Park, I wouldn't take the Evening Sun's position and get all biblical about it. I mean, as I puttered around the peninsula I didn't get lost once--which is more than I can say about my trips to Columbia.

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