While the days of seeing horse-drawn carriages on the streets of Baltimore are long gone, the structures that once housed them have survived to become one of the city's most distinct architectural symbols — and home to families and offices instead of horses and buggies.
Carriage houses, which date to the 1840s, are still standing in many cities across the East Coast. In Baltimore, they're sprinkled throughout neighborhoods such as Mount Vernon, Roland Park and Bolton Hill — frequently positioned in narrow alleys, where horse-drawn carriages used to pass.
The original structures, much wider than a typical Baltimore rowhouse, had spacious ground floors used to house the carriages and horses, and often featured an upper level for storage and living quarters. But as the need for carriage storage ended, many were renovated to serve other purposes.
Carriage homes' architecture, loft-like feel and historical character are a draw for homeowners like Jeffrey Withington and Christine Hwang, who settled into a Mount Vernon carriage house last January.
Withington, 27, and Hwang, 28, didn't know much about carriage houses, but of the several properties they viewed, this one — nestled in an alleyway just off North Charles Street — stuck with the couple.
"What stood out most to us was the uniqueness of the property and character of it," said Withington, an instructor at the Naval Academy in Annapolis. "There are lots of rowhomes, but the carriage houses were a little bit unique and different than the more standard rowhome. That originality of the carriage home appealed to us."
From the street, the couple's carriage house looks quaint and unassuming. The brick foundation, painted white, still shows the silhouette of a larger doorway, presumably once an entrance to a barn, Withington said.
But the fully renovated interior provides a different picture. Over three levels, the home features modern decor and soothing neutrals splashed with bright colors. On the main floor, a bedroom veiled by ornate Japanese shoji doors is lofted slightly above the living and dining area, with a recessed kitchen underneath. A fireplace was built into the exposed brick on the south wall — which Hwang, an urban planner, deems "very Baltimore."
Withington and Hwang's home has been around since the late 1850s, built as the carriage house for the adjacent property on St. Paul Street once occupied by a railroad executive and the president of Provident Savings Bank of Baltimore, according to Maryland Historical Society records. Back then, such structures were more than an area to store horses and carriages — they were indicators of wealth, said Francis P. O'Neill, the historical society's senior reference librarian.
While many people opted to rent their carriages or store their equipment and horses in communal carriage houses, some Baltimoreans were affluent enough and had the space to build carriage houses as an extension of their homes. Others, who could not bear the smell or the hassle, would build the house detached from their home but nearby, O'Neill said.
"It was the dividing line between people who could keep their own carriage houses and people who could rent," O'Neill said.
The construction of carriage houses tapered off around the turn of the 20th century with the invention of the automobile, and came to a halt around 1918. Some families were more attached to their carriage houses than others, O'Neill said, and turned them into living quarters as soon as they no longer needed storage for horse-drawn carriages. Others were turned into garages for cars, and some became spaces for shops and businesses.
Walter Schamu, founder of SM+P Architects, has housed his business in a 6,000-square-foot carriage house on Morton Street in Mount Vernon that he has rented for more than 20 years.
The building, dating to the 1880s, has had many lives, he said. It was transformed from a carriage house into a garage, and then into what he assumes was a repair shop (he said he can still smell the oil sometimes). And just before his business acquired the space, the space was a sofa and lamp showroom.
Schamu has kept some remnants of its past, including an original spiral staircase leading to an upper level where hay was kept, and a hoist beam on the exterior, once used as part of a pulley system to lift and lower hay to the horses.
"We love it," Schamu said, noting that many of his clients comment on the charming feel of the building. "We do a lot of historic preservation work. ... It's very much an adaptable space for an architectural firm. It's kind of a testament of taking an old building and finding a new use for it."
Dianna Campbell-Saulsbury, a senior director of client services for a marketing firm, lives in a renovated, four-floor standalone carriage house on Ploy Street in Mount Vernon with her husband. She says it sparks conversation among neighbors.
"I'll get, 'Wow, you live there? So what level do you live on?' and I say, 'No, no. It's one house. It's my house that I live in.' We always get people talking about it," said Campbell-Saulsbury, who purchased the home for a little less than $500,000.
Built in 1848 as a carriage house, which also provided space for blacksmith work, the home has since been renovated, including building additional levels. The home has a modern and spacious feel, featuring an elevator and a penthouse bedroom suite. Despite renovations, the house still has the original brick foundation and the flooring from the carriage house located in its one-car garage on the ground level.
Mark Simone, a real estate agent for Remax Preferred who sold the Mount Vernon carriage house to Withington and Hwang for a little more than $320,000, said people find the idea of recycled and renovated urban housing appealing, particularly those who are new to the city. But the search doesn't come without a challenge.
"It's definitely difficult to find [carriage houses] on the market. There are not a whole lot of them," said Simone, who has been selling homes downtown for the past 13 years. "The same folks that like the idea of living in a carriage house are the same kind of folks that look for a warehouse or loft space, which is also a scarce product on the market in Baltimore."
According to the Metropolitan Regional Information System, 29 carriage houses in the city have been sold within the past two years. Four are currently on the market.
"This speaks to its uniqueness," Simone said.
With the interest in the adaptability and novelty of carriage houses, some developers are looking for ways to reinvent history and incorporate the structure into modern development. According to Simone, there are four homes scheduled for construction in Brewers Hill that will be accompanied by a structure inspired by the carriage house. The space, he said, will incorporate elements of a garage and living space.
But for Schamu and many others, there's nothing quite like the original carriage homes.
"It's nice to be a part of Baltimore history, and it's comforting to know this building has had over 100 years in the historic district of Mount Vernon, and there's a good chance it'll be around for 100 more," Schamu said.