Jacques Kelly: Midcentury modern Bolton Square marks its first half-century

What were once called the “new” houses along West Lafayette Avenue in Bolton Hill have passed a milestone.

Bolton Square, a village-like enclave of 35 townhouses, is now 50 years old. Next month, there will be a celebration, as well as an opportunity for others to see how a once-controversial and bold (for Baltimore) housing development turned out.

“In the aftermath of World War II, Bolton Hill was on the skids,” said Bill Hamilton, a Bolton Square resident. “The wealthy families who built the elegant 19th-century mansions had given way to landlords cutting them into rooming houses for workers who came to town to grab jobs and then vacated when the war and their work ended. In the 1950s and 1960s, Baltimore benefited from generous infusions of federal urban renewal dollars that flowed out of the 1949 Housing Act. Money was allocated for the purpose of wiping out slums and building new housing and public spaces.”

In the late 1950s, the Baltimore Urban Renewal and Housing Agency condemned and leveled several residential blocks of Linden Avenue, along with its back streets, Jordan and Mason.

“Many of us were opposed to the demolition of Linden Avenue,” said former state Sen. Julian Lapides, a longtime Bolton Hill resident. “We formed our own anti-movement called Homeowners Opposed to Housing Authoritarianism.”

But the federal dollars prevailed.

The first Bolton Square homes were completed and sold in 1967. Developer Stanley Panitz worked with Washington architect Hugh Newell Jacobsen on what later won national architectural awards.

Selling Bolton Square was not easy. The 1968 riots cast doubts among many about the wisdom of living there. When not all the homes sold immediately (they were priced in 1967 at $22,000 to $43,000), Panitz rented some to Maryland Institute College of Art students. Today, MICA’s president, Samuel Hoi, lives in Bolton Square, in the same home occupied by builder Panitz in 1967.

“I was a newlywed, and our first apartment was at 1715 Linden Ave.,” said Edith Brandt, a Bolton Square resident. “When I first looked at the home on Mason Street where I now live, I told my husband, ‘No. I am not going to live in an alley.’ Now, I love it.”

Hamilton describes the Bolton Square’s look as midcentury modern, with mansard slate roofs and tall glass walls facing an inner park with a fountain.

“Jacobsen, the architect, was careful to be compatible with the grand old homes surrounding them,” said Hamilton, who lives in a home first purchased by then-city planning director Larry Reich in 1967.

James Craigen, a retired Howard University social work professor, said he discovered Bolton Square while driving from Mount Washington to his church on Lafayette Square in West Baltimore.

“I saw houses for sale and walked into one. It was not choppy — built open, with plenty of windows,” he said. “The neighborhood is like an island, an oasis in the city. The street has a row of hedges, and the homes are somewhat offset. It gives a feeling of tranquillity.”

Residents credit the care that went into the original design, giving the neighborhood a garden-like feel, and the varied dimensions of the 35 townhouses.

“The tearing down of Linden Avenue was questionable,” said Lapides. “But ultimately, what followed it did a great deal to solidify Bolton Hill.”

Bolton Square residents (West Lafayette Avenue at Mason Street) will hold their 50th anniversary event from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Oct. 7. Several residents will open their homes and gardens for tours through a collaboration with Baltimore Heritage and the Maryland Chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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