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Charmed Life

Suburban Thrall

Sam Holden

By Charles Cohen | Posted 4/18/2001

Pondering the words "historic homes," most folks' minds turn to extravagant mansions, gingerbread Victorians, Federal-style rowhouses, stone farmhouses. As far as Jack Breihan is concerned, it's time for the historic-house archetype to get an update.

For the past decade, the Loyola College history professor has been building a case for the significance of the small, boxy prefab houses built during World War II for workers at the Glenn L. Martin Co. plant in Middle River.

To an outsider, these tiny homes may look, at best, like quaint cottages; at worst, like bulldozer fodder. They certainly haven't been treated as museum pieces by their inhabitants, who've added new rooms, new floors, new fronts--anything to bring the small, confining factory houses into the modern age.

But as we cruise along the aviation-themed streets--Fuselage Avenue, Propeller Drive, Taxi Way--Breihan's trained eye looks past the new siding and the weather-treated lumber to see the original structures. And his mind's eye looks past the prosaic sprawl of eastern Baltimore County to what these clusters of homes represent. "Wartime Middle River," he says, "has to do with beating Hitler when you come right down to it."

If Breihan had his way, this community would be in the National Register of Historic Places. He talks up its significance with audiences of all kinds--community folks over chili dogs or coffee, his students at Loyola, his peers at seminars dominated by more conventional notions of preservation-worthiness. He's not bothered that Middle River factory homes don't fit today's architectural trends, the mania for hardwood floors and exposed brick. After all, those cute, cramped homes now fetching good prices in Oella and Dickeyville were once factory homes shunned by the upper class.

Right now, Breihan says, these home are at their most vulnerable to redevelopment. "If we're going to save a particular type of architecture, we've got to start paying attention to something between 50 and 75 years out, when its going to be the least popular"--not old enough to be charming but not young enough to avoid seeming obsolete.

That these homes are worth saving is not a matter of doubt to Breihan. He maintains that Middle River represents a crucial chapter in the story of the United States' suburbanization, a place where the working class finally attained the goodies that had been the province of richer burbs: cul-de-sacs, tree-lined streets, playgrounds, shopping centers.

In 1929, when Glenn Martin relocated his huge airplane factory to the county's southeast corner, Middle River was a railroad hamlet of 161 people. Ten years later, after signing a huge contract to build planes for France, the Martin Co. grew from 3,000 employees to 13,000; in the wake of Pearl Harbor, 54,000 workers built the bombers that helped the Allies to triumph. A paternal figure, Martin wanted to build a self-contained, self-sufficient town for his workers, and he had to do it in a hurry.

The pioneer of aerospace engineering applied his skills to more earthbound construction, coming up with a technique by which a five-member crew could build a house's exterior in 35 hours. By the end of 1941, a thousand homes had sprung up in brand-new communities like Wilson Point and Aero Acres.

The houses were built from a prefab paneling called Cemesto. The asbestos-covered fiberboard slid together in grooves to form two-bedroom homes with shingled roofs. A thick piece of molding hid the joints between panels and doubled as a living-room shelf. Each home came with fitted cabinets, a stove consisting of two hot plates and an electric roasting oven, and a double-basin sink for washing dishes and clothes. Martin left large swaths of forest cover and dictated that front doors face a communal grassy plaza to facilitate socializing.

The architectural homogeneity of the Martin homes had a purpose, Breihan says. "This was a democratic community. Everyone got the same house," he says. "Some people were engineers, some people were riveters. Engineers got paid a lot more than riveters, but everybody was very happy living in one of these houses."

Breihan discovered the communities' charms while researching the old Martin Co. plant in Middle River, now a Lockheed Martin facility. Detouring through these communities en route to the plant, he realized he had come upon one of the linchpins of modern suburbanization.

"I see World War II as the moment in which these planning ideas for the upper class finally percolated down to ordinary working-class housing," he says, "the kind [in which] I grew up in the 1950s."

He started researching everything about the neighborhoods, from the company that made the Cemesto panels to the stores that went into shopping centers to the ways this new society catered to the car. He presented papers on how the homes' construction style was similar to Martin's approach to building planes, and on Middle River as one of the first planned working-class communities to offer the amenities today's suburbanites take for granted. Five years ago, he formed a panel of community leaders and preservationists to award prizes for the community's best-preserved and most-improved homes. (While he relishes the original homes, Breihan isn't a purist; he says the remodeled houses are "time capsules" that document the recent history of home improvement.)

Driving his convertible through these streets on a cold early-spring day, wistfully recalling the shared green space of Martin's original designs (long since divvied up to expand individual homes' yards), Breihan stops by what he considers the most perfectly preserved factory house in Middle River, bereft of any modernizing touches. In its plain state, he says, this house can stand with any residential architecture history has to offer.

"It seems to me," he says, "that the same values that make us value Annapolis would make us value this neighborhood."

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