It could have been a scene right out of an English novel set in the 1930s.
On the village green, neighbors -- many wearing tuxedos or vintage clothing -- were playing croquet. Onlookers sipped punch and munched on cucumber sandwiches and dainties. The winning team was roundly applauded.
A National Historic Community, the little-known neighborhood boasts about 120 houses that were built between 1840 and 1890 to house both the wave of immigrants arriving and the blue-collar workers employed by the local industries.
By the 1950s, the neighborhood had fallen into disrepair, and it would remain that way until revitalization began in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Today, the neighborhood is home to a diverse community of professionals -- teachers, medical researchers, engineers, attorneys -- as well as University of Maryland medical and dental students.
It's a neighborhood of quaint brick townhouses with brick sidewalks, a plethora of good-sized trees and several spacious commons areas that has been referred to as a "little Georgetown." Many of the homes have surprisingly large back yards, and over the years the neighborhood association has planted dozens of daffodils in the commons areas.
One of the first homeowners to rehabilitate a Barre Circle house was Sissy Bryant, who arrived with her family in 1980. "It was an exciting time, and we had the chance to design our own home," she said. "There were a lot of the original owners then. There was a lot of enthusiasm about living in the city, and, because everyone was rebuilding houses, there was a lot of camaraderie."
And there's still a lot of spirit in the neighborhood, which is bordered on the east by Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, on the north by Lombard Street, on the west by Scott Street and on the south by Ramsey Street.
The Inner Harbor is just blocks away and, at night, the gleaming dome of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Museum lights up the neighborhood's western edge.
It's a neighborhood where former residents tell of watching trains run up and down McHenry Street, and, if one looks carefully, the rails there are still visible. According to historian John P. Hankey, the trains (which made runs into the 1970s) served the old Koppers plant, a large-scale specialty steel shop immediately west of the neighborhood.
"Barre Circle has always been a sort of crossroads," Hankey said. "By the 1820s, Baltimore had become a fair-sized city, and Barre Circle was the edge of a rapidly expanding zone of industry and working-class brick rowhouses."
The Koppers site burned down nearly 20 years ago and the area has been vacant since, causing rumors of development to swirl for years. Today, Barre Circle residents are hopeful that Ryland Homes Inc. will begin breaking ground for more than 112, possibly 120, townhouses on the site, but the project remains uncertain.
According to Jim Joyce, president of the Baltimore division of Ryland, implementation of the project rests on the resolution of environmental issues. In short, the city is waiting for the state environmental agency to give the site a clean bill of health.
"No one wants to start anything until they are positive there will be no liability," said Joyce, adding that it's hoped that the environmental issue could be resolved by midyear.
Also immediately to the west of Barre Circle (and just north of the Koppers site) is Roundhouse Square, a 10-year-old development of 45 townhouses, occupied by urban professionals.
After a couple of years of slow home sales in Barre Circle, about eight houses sold in 1997, according to the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors, for an average price of $72,228. Residents speculate that the neighborhood is again becoming a hot area because housing prices in Federal Hill and Otterbein are significantly higher, the night life scene there is expanding and parking is scarce.
While many of the houses are 12 to 14 feet wide, quite a few double-width homes are available. One such townhouse, at 1028-1030 W. Barre St., is on the market -- asking price, $129,800. It boasts a living room, dining room, modern kitchen, five bedrooms, two fireplaces, two full baths, hardwood floors, central air conditioning, skylights, a rear deck and a full, albeit unfinished, basement.
Single-width houses are priced lower. At 1057 W. Barre St., the asking price is $89,900 for a living room with fireplace, dining room and kitchen with all appliances. The house, which was rebuilt in 1980, has four bedrooms, 2 1/2 baths, a laundry on the second floor, new carpeting and central air conditioning. According to the Realtor, help is available with the closing costs because Barre Circle is in an Empowerment Zone.
"Barre Circle was very affordable when we moved here, and it still is," said Laurie Cushman, who moved to the neighborhood in 1987 with her husband, Sam, from Montgomery County. "We liked the looks of the neighborhood and the city feel, and Sam can conveniently commute by car to NIH [National Institutes of Health] in Bethesda, or catch the MARC train if it's snowing."