Paper trail leads to a journey into history of Cedarcroft community

Two pasteboard file boxes, the type sold by Baltimore's old Lucas Brothers stationery firm, were discovered a few months ago tucked into the attic of a North Baltimore home.

The boxes were filled with 538 typed business letters, invoices and handwritten notes dating from about 1922 to 1931. In pristine condition, the documents provide a fascinating glimpse into the workings of the Cedarcroft neighborhood during a busy time — when its houses were being built and new families were moving in.

"I've scanned them all and preserved them in the original order they were placed in the boxes," said Stuart Haley, a Cedarcroft Road resident, historian and genealogist.

"They fill about file 20 folders," Haley said of the trove. "For a relatively small neighborhood, a large body of history has been preserved by this happy accident."

Development of the Cedarcroft neighborhood followed the death in 1908 of George M. Lamb, who owned a suburban estate of that name. Lamb was a commission merchant in downtown Baltimore; his father operated a boarding school in what is now the Milton Inn on York Road in Sparks.

Lamb's heirs subdivided Cedarcroft — about 40 acres — and laid out a curvilinear street plan from Gittings to Lake avenues, west of York Road and east of Bellona Avenue. Homeowners bought lots and hired architects for their Dutch Colonial and Arts and Crafts-style cottages.

Lamb's home, a big Victorian that looks lifted from Cape May, N.J., remains on Sycamore Road surrounded by a native perennial garden.

Letters in the file are addressed to the Cedarcroft Maintenance Corporation, whose members were the people who bought homes in the neighborhood before and after World War I.

Haley said the messages are "boring, funny, absurd and provide quite a narrative on what it was like to design, build and operate a community."

The documents reflect how Cedarcroft's residents controlled the life of their little community. There are bills from the Griffith-Turner Seed Co.: a 22-tooth wooden rake for 60 cents, a $30 lawn mower and a $32 cast-iron lawn roller.

Of course, not everyone was happy all the time. Annual neighborhood dues were $15 a year, and some found fault, for instance, when the snow wasn't plowed to their liking.

"For two years I waited for the company to replace two trees which were dead, so at the price of the trees I think the company owes me money," Clara Muller, a Pinehurst Road resident, wrote in 1926.

The files also illuminate the touchy subject of house design and domestic aesthetics.

"I think they wanted all the homes to be painted white with green shutters," Haley said. "The contractors complained and wanted to use a daring color, like cream."

Plans for any structures, including garages, had to be approved by the Charles Street architectural firm of Mottu and White. The architectural criticisms could be precise — such as one instructing the owners to enlarge a glass panel in a front door to admit more light into the hall.

The files disclose that in early 1928, Messrs. Mottu and White politely withdrew from playing architectural umpire. The homeowners thanked them and paid $160 for critiquing 16 homes.

Haley doesn't know how the correspondence found its way to the former home of Edward L. Hickman, a Cedarcroft Road resident involved in a wholesale business, where they were found.

"They survived in an unfinished part of the attic, in the open joists," Haley said.

The discovery is important as a community resource, said Andrea Tucker, another Cedarcroft resident and neighborhood historian.

"The mere fact that people had the presence of mind to keep this is remarkable," Tucker said. "It is a treasure that was unearthed. I hope today that people are thinking about the future in the same way."

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