Federal Hill: Past, Present, and Future

by Dr. Mary Ellen Hayward

It started in the spring of 1977—my fascination with the Baltimore rowhouse, that is. Back in Baltimore after finishing a Ph.D. in American Studies at Boston University, I happened to see a flyer in my local grocery for the Historic Harbor House Tour, with newly renovated houses in Fells Point and Federal Hill open for visitors. Intrigued, I went, visiting Jim Craig’s house at 9 E. Montgomery Street—not yet finished as I recall, some houses on Churchill Street, and one or two of the larger houses on the north side of the 200 block of Montgomery.

Who knew that Williamsburg had come to Baltimore? That experience became a turning point in my professional career. My Ph.D. concentration had been American painting, but I’d taken my share of architecture courses too, most recently with none other than Abbott Lowell Cummings in Boston. The fact that these early Federal-period houses existed in Baltimore and that people were taking the time to carefully restore them seemed important.

I made an appointment with the then-irector of the Preservation Society of Fells Point, Federal Hill, and Montgomery Street, Joyce Rafaelli, and asked her if she might have a job available. She said no, so I offered to do some volunteer work—pulling together some research already conducted on 36 E. Montgomery Street. Joyce told me, though, that there was a young firm working on rehabbing houses over in Federal Hill and that I might check with them about a job. So I set up an appointment with Bill Struever and made my way over to his office in a small, recently renovated house on E. Cross Street. Climbing up the narrow stairs to the second floor I met architect Amy Gould and Bill’s partner Cobber Eccles. The first thing Bill said was “Can you write?”

It turns out that Bill had already had discussions with people at the Maryland Historical Trust about doing a project to learn more about the history of the buildings in the Federal Hill National Register District, where Struever Bros. & Eccles was acquiring and rehabbing properties. At the Trust’s offices in the Shaw House in Annapolis, I learned what would be required to fill out Historic Site Survey forms for the houses and rowhouse units in Federal Hill, and signed on for the job. On one page of what we now call “the old yellow forms,” one had to describe the physical appearance of the building, including a floor plan if possible; on the other page, one gave the building’s date, the builder, if known, and explained how the building fit in with the history of the neighborhood and city at the time of construction.

Then, notebook and camera in hand, I began walking the blocks of Federal Hill, standing in front of each house in turn, making sketches, recording architectural details, and trying to look through windows to find out where the stairs were. At this time in early 1978 only a few blocks of the Federal Hill National Register district were in the process of being renovated—the 200 block of E. Montgomery Street and the 200 block of Churchill, the 800 block of William Street, and the 200 and 300 blocks of Warren Avenue—all addresses with harbor views of adjacent to Federal Hill Park. Some blocks south, Struever Bros. & Eccles had recently rehabbed four houses on the north side of E. Cross Street and four to the north along Grindall Street—with a community courtyard in between.

A number of blocks at the north end of Federal Hill—parts of the east and west unit blocks of Montgomery Street, and the unit block of E. Hughes Street stood desolately vacant behind tall chain link fences. Houses in the 800 block of S. Charles Street were burned out shells and the 700 and 800 blocks of S. Hanover Street were also boarded and vacant. The houses on Montgomery Street, acquired by the city when plans were still afoot to stretch an expressway across the oldest part of Fells Point via a bridge over the harbor to the oldest parts of Federal Hill, sat empty after the defeat of “The Road” while HCD decided what to do with them. Eventually, these houses would be auctioned off to the highest bidders who could guarantee they had the money and expertise to renovate them. But in the meantime, they proved a gold mine of information to me.

Gaps in the fencing and loosely boarded-up entryways allowed an intrepid researcher to observe and photograph original woodwork details and make measured drawings of representative floor plans of the various styles and ages of houses. The two-and-a-half-story shells on the east side of the 800 block of S. Charles Street introduced me to the tight winder stairs so typical of early vernacular rowhouses, as well as the fact that this very early row had a common gable roof with wooden partitions between units.

Accurately dating the houses I was recording was another matter. After several forays into the land records office on the 6th floor of the courthouse, I met a remarkable man who took pity on me and began to teach me the intricacies of title searching. Michael Isekoff had worked for a title company for many years but his real passion was for Baltimore history and the old maps, prints, and publications, like Baltimore City Directories, that helped tell the city’s story. I soon learned that Michael, a Bolton Hill resident, was one of the foremost collectors of Baltimore maps and prints, and highly knowledgeable about the growth of the city. Together we read deeds from the early nineteenth century that, in those days, were still available at the courthouse—in huge, heavy, and dusty volumes stored on shelves so high that I needed to stand on a chair to reach them.

But the information found within those handwritten pages made history magically come alive. Under Michael’s guidance, working backwards from deeds recorded in the 1850-51 block book indexes, I was eventually able to find the building dates, builders, and early owners of most of the houses in Federal Hill. I learned that most of what became the neighborhood of Federal Hill once belonged to John Eager Howard, Revolutionary War hero and later Governor of Maryland, who first divided the land into lots and laid out streets in 1782. The frame house at 130 E. Montgomery Street was built in 1796 by Matthew Murray, a boatman or mariner; the fine brick house at 36 E. Montgomery, probably the oldest surviving brick house in Federal Hill, went up in 1795, built by a Philadelphia house carpenter named John Fisher. The two-and-a-half-story brick houses at 1-11 E. Montgomery—all undergoing renovation in 1978—were built in the first few years of the nineteenth century. Ford Barnes, a carter, built the three-bay-wide house at 9 E. Montgomery for himself in 1801 and the adjoining two-bay-wide house at 11 E. Montgomery for rental.

By comparing the names of builders and early owners I found in deeds to the listings of names in the Baltimore City Directories (first published in 1796), I quickly learned that early Federal Hill, like Fells Point, was an active maritime community. Almost everyone worked in some aspects of maritime life—either building ships, supplying them, or serving on them. After 1814 and the launch of Baltimore’s first small steamboat, the Chesapeake, steam engine manufactories began to be located at the foot of Federal Hill, most notably that of Charles Reeder and, later, Watchman and Bratt. As the nineteenth century progressed, more and more shipyards sprang up along the eastern foot of Federal Hill, joined at mid-century by oyster and fruit and vegetable packing houses. The now bustling community needed more workers and speculative Baltimore builders jumped in to provide houses for them. Reeder himself built some houses on S. Charles Street in the 1820s and later Samuel Bratt, of Watchman and Bratt, began to build three-story houses on the north side of the 200 block of E. Montgomery Street.

By the mid-1830s, a wealthy Baltimore banker named John S. Gittings began erecting row after row of small houses on the streets west of Light—on Wheeling, Henrietta, and Hamburg Streets—for the ever-increasing number of families moving to the area to work in shipyards or canneries. (Houses built in the 1820s and 1830s had steeply pitched gable roofs and dormer windows; by the 1840s the houses looked different, with a lower-pitched gable roof and narrow attic windows lighting the third floor.) The local population had grown to such an extent that in 1846 the city built the Cross Street Market between Light and S. Charles Streets. Over the next decade both streets filled with three-story commercial buildings—with a storefront below and the family living above. In the decades after the Civil War, Gittings and other builders kept taking up new land and building new style Italianate houses—with flat roofs and a heavy cornice—south of the market.

While the area west of Light Street remained solidly working class, the few blocks surrounding Federal Hill Park attracted more ambitious builders of large three-story houses beginning in the late 1850s and continuing after the Civil War. Here lived the owners and managers of the ship and engine-building businesses that ringed the foot of Federal Hill, as well as other successful local merchants. It is not surprising that it was these larger and more finely built houses that first enticed preservation-minded people to tackle the job of renovating a house and moving into a struggling city neighborhood. Other early residents were attracted by the opportunity to purchase a severely dilapidated, but undoubtedly charming historic house for little money. They were aided in these efforts by special types of construction/rehabilitation loans that offered buyers cash credits, known as “sweat equity,” towards their down payments for renovation work they could do themselves. In the vernacular of the day, these “urban pioneers” were exactly that—they gambled that their enthusiasm and hard work could make a difference.

Several blocks south, but seemingly another world away, three other idealistic gamblers thought they could make a difference too. Recent urban studies majors at Brown University and enthusiasts of Jane Jacobs, Bill Struever and his partner and friend Cobber Eccles—joined by Bill’s brother Fred—came to Baltimore because of the favorable national publicity of the $1 house program. First working on Stirling Street houses (electrician Bill did most of the wiring there), then on Otterbein $1 houses, the team refined their construction chops and decided to invest in some even more affordable property far removed from the renovation activity on Montgomery Street. They acquired four houses on the north side of Cross Street, just west of Key Highway, and the four houses on Grindall Street directly to the north, rehabbed them and created a common grassy space between them they called Chandler’s Yard in honor of the ship chandlers who had lived in the area. They sold quickly at very reasonable prices.

But the partners knew that if they were to help Federal Hill gain new life and a new identity as a place for energetic young professionals, they had to do more than just fix up old houses. They also had to revitalize commercial life and help create the kind of new local businesses, restaurants, and shops that would make life in this community inviting, convenient, interesting, and exciting. Focusing their attention on the still vibrant Cross Street Market, many of whose vendors had been in business there for close to fifty years, the firm bought and renovated several old storefronts nearby, in which they opened new kinds of businesses that would appeal to young professionals like themselves, and hopefully become new community gathering places. The Sundae Times ice-cream parlor on the south side of Cross Street offered hand-dipped ice cream, coffee, and sandwiches, as well as newspapers Around the corner to the north, a tiny alley house on Patapsco Street became the Children’s Bookstore, carrying the kind of storybooks and children’s toys that would appeal to modern young parents (the business still survives in Roland Park). Nearby the Cross Street Cheese Shop provided fine cheeses for gourmet palates. But the most successful new business of them all proved to be the bar and live music venue called Hammerjacks, on the northwest corner of Cross and S. Charles Streets.

Little by little, Struever Bros. & Eccles acquired over thirty-five vacant and deteriorated old commercial storefronts on S. Charles and Light Streets, near Cross, rehabbed them, and then sold or rented them to new businesses that would make life in Federal Hill more attractive to both potential residents and other new city dwellers, like those in nearby Otterbein, being brought back to the city by the harbor and the $1 house program. Soon a special restaurant called Regi’s opened on Light Street and the Soup Kitchen opened on S. Charles. Other offerings included a health foods store, an Italian delicatessen, medical offices, and a plant shop.

Always feeling that the Cross Street Market should be the center of neighborhood life, Bill Struever obtained a grant from the Maryland Humanities Council to do an oral history project on the market families. Bill, myself, and photographer Susie Fitzhugh interviewed and photographed all of the long-time market vendors and then published articles about them in the local South Baltimore newspaper, The Enterprise, accompanied by old family and market photos they provided. The articles not only gave these market families a sense of pride in their long history, but also helped introduce them to the every-increasing numbers of new residents who were becoming their customers.

Today, in 2012, all of Federal Hill and much of South Baltimore is a successful, vibrant, thriving city neighborhood. My daughter, a 2011 Johns Hopkins graduate who is now in a Master’s program at Hopkins’ School of Nursing, lives with her roommate in a tiny, but charmingly restored alley house on Sanders Street in “South Federal Hill.” Many of her neighbors are also graduate students or recent graduates pursuing their first jobs. They shop at the Cross Street Market, patronize the bar located in the old Sundae Times ice cream parlor, socialize at other bars and restaurants on Cross, Light, and S. Charles Streets, ride bikes and walk their dogs around the neighborhood. They even seem to appreciate the period details of the historic houses in which they live.

In 1978 Federal Hill was just beginning to become a desirable place to live. Because it escaped the ravages of the Baltimore Fire of 1904, the area contains some of the oldest surviving housing in the city—charming examples of Federal and Greek Revival-style houses and rowhouses, a number of early churches, and many commercial storefronts from the 1850s. Enthusiasts in the 1970s embraced this housing and lovingly restored period details like original fireplaces and mantels, winder stairs, wide-plank flooring, 6/6 windows, and original woodwork and doors. When there were no more early nineteenth-century houses to restore, those eager to live in the city—within walking distance of the harbor and the brand-new Harborplace (1981)—began renovating houses built in the late 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s—both the small working class houses west of Light Street, and the larger and more stylish houses near the Park. By the 1990s areas south of the National Register district boundary of West Street—mainly developed in the later nineteenth century—were being renovated and later became a new National Register District. Over the last decade the communities to the south—Riverside Park as well as Locust Point—have seen intensive redevelopment work and are now also National Register Historic Districts, with tax credit benefits available to those renovating the historic houses there.

The visions that Baltimore housing officials like Bob Embry and local developers like Struever Bros. & Eccles had for the future of Federal Hill have come true. The neighborhood, as well as South Baltimore and Locust Point, is now an active, vibrant, exciting, and thriving community, full of happy residents, successful businesses, joggers, bikers . . . and lots of friendly dogs.

Dr. Mary Ellen Hayward is the author of several books on Baltimore architecture:  Baltimore’s Alley Houses: Homes for Working People Since the 1780 (Johns Hopkins, 2008), which won the Abbott Lowell Cummings Prize from the Vernacular Architecture Forum in 2009; The Baltimore Rowhouse, with Charles Belfoure (Princeton Architectural Press, 1999; and editor, with Frank R. Shivers, Jr. of The Architecture of Baltimore, An Illustrated History, (Johns Hopkins, 2004).
After working for many years as the maritime curator at the Maryland Historical Society, since 1996 she has worked as an independent preservation and museum consultant, helping to create, and acting as curator of, the Irish Railroad Workers Museum at 918-920 Lemmon Street; preparing twelve successful National Register Historic District nominations for various parts of Baltimore city; and, most recently identifying those buildings still standing in Fells Point that were there during the War of 1812.