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Old-House Online » Old-House Tips, Restoration Stories, & More » Historic Places » Historic Neighborhoods » Baltimore’s Varied Row Houses

Baltimore’s Varied Row Houses

Baltimore's streets are lined with an astonishing array of original row houses. Story and photos by James C. Massey & Shirley Maxwell

    Two Baltimore traditions side by side: a workman's brick row house amid Formstone-covered neighbors.

    Two Baltimore traditions side by side: a workman's brick row house amid Formstone-covered neighbors.

    Row houses came to America with the first British settlers and formed the backbone of East Coast cities.

    Practical, adaptable, and attractive, they’ve never passed wholly out of fashion. Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington all have blocks upon blocks of row houses. But while other cities built row houses by the hundreds, Baltimore built them by the thousands.

    Until the automobile and the suburbs beckoned, Baltimoreans of every ethnic and economic background lived in, and loved, their row-house neighborhoods. Many still do—and they have lots of company.

    A Range of Rows

    The city’s collection of row house styles, sizes, and amenities is vast. A few are Federal or Greek Revival mansions facing formal squares or parks. Many more are narrow 19th-century workers’ homes, stretching from block-end to block-end near the waterfront, where they were convenient to factory jobs of an earlier era.

    J.A. Wilson's Belvedere Terrace (1879) is one of the nation's most distinguished Queen Anne rows.

    J.A. Wilson's Belvedere Terrace (1879) is one of the nation's most distinguished Queen Anne rows.

    Others are proud middle-class residences sporting the architectural furbelows of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Finally, far from the urban core are early 20th-century “daylights”—wider houses with full front porches that brought sun and air into the interior—with neat yards and often little garages. The majority of all types were originally owner-occupied.

    In addition to owner occupancy, three other essentials turned Baltimore’s rows into neighborhoods: convenient alleys, corner stores and bars, and, above all, convivial marble stoops.

    Defining a Row House

    Canton rows display stained-glass window and door transoms, and the famous white marble stoops regularly scrubbed by generations of Baltimore housewives.

    Canton rows display stained-glass window and door transoms, and the famous white marble stoops regularly scrubbed by generations of Baltimore housewives.

    A row house is a home that shares a party wall—a single wall between buildings—with its immediate neighbor on each side. Rows are set within a sizable, unbroken grouping of residences built at or near the same time. The basic row house is two stories, two bays, and 12′ to 14′ wide—though it can be both taller and wider. Shared alleys serve the rear of the buildings.

    The closer to a major avenue or boulevard the house was located, the larger and more elaborate it was likely to be. The smallest and simplest row houses, no more than 12′ wide, were on secondary streets and even alleyways. Two stories high and two bays across, they had just four rooms: two downstairs and two above.

    Upscale Amenities

    Enclosed front porches mark these 1920s-era "sunlight day-parlor" houses in Waverly.

    Enclosed front porches mark these 1920s-era "sunlight day-parlor" houses in Waverly.

    The homes of more prosperous working families were larger, airier, and better lit; two or three stories high; mostly 12′ to 14′ wide, but occasionally 16′; and three bays across. They had a first-floor parlor with a side hall, backed by a dining room, with two bedrooms above. A narrow rear wing provided space for the kitchen on the first floor and more bedrooms on the second. Every room had at least one window—except the bathroom, which usually made do with a skylight. In row houses of all sizes, front doors are dauntingly narrow, but wide parlor windows often presage the picture windows of the 1950s.

    The end units in a block often housed stores or bars, with the entrance in a clipped corner to serve both front and side streets.

    Row-house plans varied little until the advent of the 20th-century “daylight” or “airlight” house. In addition to the front porch, airlights eliminated the rear wing, allowing two rooms across per floor. Glassed-in front porches, or sunrooms, appeared around 1915, producing an almost suburban air of spaciousness.

    Adaptability has been the key to survival for Baltimore’s oldest house type. Despite cycles of intense industrialization, explosive population growth, suburban flight, urban blight, removal, and revival, the row house continues to rule the streets of this modern city.

    Published in: Old-House Journal August/September 2010


    andrew frey October 14, 2010 at 6:12 pm

    really first-rate post, i linked to it on my blog about exemplary small urban buildings ( if you do any more article about townhouses or rowhouses, please let me know. andrew

    Mark Lukas July 6, 2012 at 11:57 pm

    I own a row home in the Bayview neighborhood in SE Baltimore City, which was built by Frank Novak Company, in 1929. Novak was known as the “king of two-story row homes” until his death in 1945. At one time the city wanted to name a street after him, to honor him, but he did not want this. As such, the city named a street “Kavon” (Novak backwards). I have the original bathtub (no claw feet), which was made by “Joseph Peters, Baltimore, Maryland”. Would anyone know about Peters? Also, I’d like to purchase some old door knobs/plates (with keyholes) to match others that I have in my home, as I need a few more (could not find same in my searches), and a stained glass door transom. Would anyone have these items for sale? Thank-you.

    Cathleen Peters November 21, 2012 at 11:36 pm

    I am a great great granddaughter of Joseph Peters. The bathtub was installed by the family plumbing company. The family had been plumbers and builders in several parts of Baltimore City. They worked closely with the Novak family and other contractors in Baltimore.

    I also have owned homes with the Joseph Peters name in galvanized steel, on the clean out cover of the original tub. Please contact me if you choose to remove the cover. I would be interested in having it if you no longer need it. If you know anyone else who has one that will be removed, please contact me. Thank you very much!

    Rich Weaver February 13, 2013 at 2:23 pm

    I lived in Canton for 6 years on Linwood Ave and have a stained glass window for sale if anyone is interested. if so shoot me an email and i will send you pictures of it.

    Sharon Klusek August 20, 2015 at 11:03 am

    Does anyone have pictures of the old row houses on light street before the science center was built?

    David Earp March 5, 2016 at 3:20 pm

    As a native Baltimorean born and raised on the west side of town, I’ve always admired the architecture of Baltimore’s rowhomes from young childhood onward. It’s nice to see so many fine examples still preserved throughout the city. Some may look at them and only see old brick city houses, but they don’t realize the quality of materials, workmanship, and artistry that went into the construction of a row of these enduring homes. Even IF you could find the same materials and craftspersons to reconstruct a block of these substantial homes, the cost to do so in today’s dollars would be prohibitive for the average homeowner. Hope the citizens of Baltimore continue to appreciate and care for these gems of construction.

    miriam April 3, 2016 at 4:59 am

    Very nice and similar to deutch-homes in Amsterdam

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