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Charmed Life

Land of More Pleasant Living

Michelle Gienow

By Tom Chalkley | Posted 8/1/2001

You think it's hot in downtown Baltimore? Muggy? Unbreathable? Code red? Imagine what it must have been like 150 years ago, when nobody had air conditioning, when coal- and wood-fired locomotives, ships, and businesses smothered the central city with a foul black cloud, when the Jones Falls was Baltimore's open sewer. Add to all that the reek of backyard privies, the stench of streets thick with horse dung, and the rank crush of pre-deodorant humanity in an age when people wore long-sleeved wool garments all summer to ward off what were believed to be pestilential "vapors" rising off rivers and creeks.

These compelling conditions gave rise to Baltimore's first planned suburb, Mount Washington, which was originally conceived as a summer resort for wealthy city dwellers, about five and a half miles upwind from downtown. Laid out in 1854, Mount Washington was on the leading edge of a national trend of "romantic suburbs." The nation's first such development, Llewellyn Park, N.J., had been designed just two years earlier, incorporating several features that Mount Washington would emulate: large lots, picturesque landscaping, and, most importantly, proximity to a railroad.

Mount Washington was the brainchild of an entrepreneur named George Gelbach Jr., who saw opportunity in a series of lofty, wooded hills that overlooked Jones Falls, Falls Road, and a station on the Baltimore and Susquehanna (later the Northern Central) Railroad. The rail line's southern terminus was the twin-towered Calvert Street Station at Centre Street, where the Sun's building now stands. By train, the jaunt between downtown and Mount Washington took a mere quarter hour--roughly what the equivalent car ride takes today. Such a commute would enable well-heeled residents to do city business while enjoying a salubrious "country" lifestyle during the hot months. An early promotional pamphlet for Mount Washington described the setup as a "healthy, retired, and respectable country residence, avoiding the monotony of a village, or the crowding and confinement of the city, yet retaining the advantages of a community."

The only pre-existing settlement nearby was a hamlet called Washingtonville, huddled on the flood plain beside the mills of the Washington Cotton Manufacturing Co., which produced sail cloth for the shipping industry. Unimpeded, Gelbach and a partner, the Rev. Elias Heiner, bought about 300 acres, incorporating three hills on the western side of the Jones Falls. They surveyed lots, graded roads, and announced their scheme to a sweltering city. Like suburb-builders ever since, the developers adapted the local place name for their dream town, dubbing it "Mount Washington Rural Retreat."

Slowly, over the next three decades, huge frame houses rose--"cottages," in the faux-modest parlance of the time--variously bedecked with Victorian Gothic ornaments, fish-scale shingles, patterned slate roofs, turrets, widow's walks, and ornate porches. Among them was Gelbach's own manse, still standing at 1705 South Road, on the community's southernmost hill. The middle hill, between Western Run and Smith Avenue, came to be known as Dixon Hill after James and Thomas Dixon, architects and brothers who designed many of its elaborate houses. (The Dixons also designed the medieval gatehouse of the Baltimore City Jail at Madison and Buren streets; the prolific Thomas Dixon is most renowned for the Mount Vernon Methodist Church.)

But from the outset, the "retreat" to Mount Washington implied something more than just a summer getaway. In the romantic ideology of the time, fresh air was seen as a benign influence on the mind and spirit as well as the lungs. Mount Washington was destined to be a center of enlightenment. On the northernmost hill, Heiner, a minister of the German Reformed Church, established the Mount Washington Female College and a tiny church house. While the school, which catered to Southern families, soon fell prey to the Civil War, it bequeathed the community its best-known landmark, the Octagon building (another Dixon masterpiece), and its most intriguing legend: Among the school's first students was a 12-year-old Virginia girl named Belle Boyd, who later earned fame as a teenage spy and courier for the Confederate Army. The Octagon, its shape inspired by the theories of phrenologist Orson Squire Fowler, went on to house a succession of religious and private schools up until 1982, when it was bought by the United States Fidelity & Guarantee (USF&G) insurance company. Handsomely refurbished, it's now called the Mount Washington Conference Center.

Mount Washington also attracted institutions--and individuals--devoted to health. In the 1920s, an estate on Rogers Avenue was bought by the Happy Hills Convalescent Home for Children, which evolved into Mount Washington Pediatric Hospital. The community has long been home to more than its share of physicians; one of its more recent developments, on Bonnieview Drive off Kelly Avenue, is home to so many medical folk that it has been nicknamed "Pill Hill."

Mount Washington was annexed by the city in 1919, to the chagrin of many residents. More changes would come. Construction of the Jones Falls Expressway in the late 1950s and early '60s coincided with the end of commuter rail service and separated the hills of Mount Washington from the old mill complex and the shops along Falls Road. Washingtonville, the old village next to the mill, was all but erased by the freeway.

At the same time, the JFX helped outsiders discover the now-quaint neighborhood. Boutiques, art studios, and exotic health clinics began to appear in the late '60s, filling in vacancies as old stores and religious institutions folded, and--in a way Gelbach and Heiner could never have anticipated--sustaining the community's identity as a place apart from the urban grind. When hands-free commuting returned with the light rail in 1992, Mount Washington completed a full, if eccentric, circle.

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