Baltimore woman taps archives, detective skills to preserve neighborhood's past

Ann G. Giroux used determination, sleuthing skills to compile new Guilford book.

North Baltimore's Guilford neighborhood — home of some of the highest tax bills in the region — has a history that's documented in boxes and files in the home of Ann G. Giroux.

The stash provides a level of documentation that's not usually found in a 100-plus-year-old residential community.

Giroux, author of "Guilford," a newly published history of this beautiful garden suburb, devoted more than six years to uncovering the origins of this community.

Born in 1974, Giroux spent her childhood in a home on Newland Road in what was the first section of Guilford to be developed. She has a respect for this quarter, near Greenmount Avenue and Southway, where architect Edward L. Palmer confected a harmonious enclave that mixed entrance gateways and clusters of homes.

The home where she spent her youth was designed by Oliver Wight, architect of North Avenue's Parkway Theater — a local landmark whose refurbishment is about to begin.

Giroux is an accomplished sleuth of Baltimore factoids. She is a dogged researcher and seems to enjoy her task, especially when it's related to her home community.

She said many urban myths and tall tales swirl around the neighborhood where she has spent her life, many of them "backed by very little research."

Giroux, a graduate of Friends School of Baltimore and the University of Chicago, fills the library of her Greenway home with plastic storage containers of her research.

"People throw things on my front porch and run," she said of some of the orphaned papers deposited at her door.

She often visits the Johns Hopkins University's campus library to study the enormous cache of documentation, business papers and archives of the Roland Park Co., which guided the bulk of Guilford's development.

The archives spent decades at Cornell University and were returned to Baltimore several years ago. The trove is open to scholars — though Giroux's picture-heavy book represents the first time the archival materials have worked their way out of the Hopkins library stacks.

About half the photos in her book are from the Hopkins materials. Giroux used her considerable sleuthing powers to find the rest.

The book, published by Arcadia Publishing, is a handy pictorial catalog of the finest in Guilford, a neighborhood where there simply aren't any hideous-looking houses. She chose many photographs that were taken just as these mansions were completed 80 to 100 years ago. In those days, the trees were not mature and photographers used enormous negatives. As a result, the views and the reproduction quality are exceptional.

I like her decision to include photos of places not precisely in Guilford. One of these is the old Ascot House on West 39th Street, a glorious house and garden demolished for a parking lot — despite its landmark status — nearly 35 years ago.

"Among the first to buy in Guilford were dealers in lumber and men involved in real estate transactions," she said of the pre-World War I buyers.

In time, the neighborhood became popular with monied academics. But Jews were forbidden, and African-Americans were also excluded by covenant.

The original Guilford estate, owned by the heirs of The Sun's founder, A.S. Abell, was sold in 1907 for $1 million to real estate developer Thomas Tongue and his investors.

When the first group needed help, the Roland Park Co. arrived to get the place under construction. Giroux notes that the company's engineering department worked miracles creating a park-like residential environment.

These engineers, she explains, also worked in other states on contracts building similar garden suburbs. Baltimore's version holds it own among the many areas touched by the fabled Olmsted brothers — John and Frederick Jr., sons of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted — who gave Guilford its non-cookie-cutter feel.

The cast of characters who bought these places is not shabby. Giroux's pages are filled with names such as Gunther, Turnbull, Greiner, Eisenhower, Cochran and Bauernschmidt.

She praises the subtle work of practitioners such as Palmer and his fellow designers.

"Palmer used restrained facades, variations of brickwork around doorways and put the porches and loggias in the rear or on the side," she said. "He used balance and proportion without resorting to symmetry."

The superiority of architecture is most enduring, Giroux said.

Through her work as preservationist — and detective — the history of Guilford endures as well.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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