Village of Cross Keys, at 58, looks toward a new chapter

Cross Keys, as the village center was nearing completion in 1973.
Cross Keys, as the village center was nearing completion in 1973. (Check with Baltimore Sun Photo)

A Baltimore Sun article suggests that the Village of Cross Keys is changing hands. Representatives of Caves Valley Partners are negotiating to acquire the center from owner Ashkenazy Acquisition Corp. and recently held a meeting with the Roland Park Civic League to discuss its plans.

In the last 58 years, Cross Keys has made the transition from nine bucolic holes at the Baltimore County Club to a self-contained campus of housing, a small hotel and a core of neighborhood shops and offices. A partnership of Toronto architects James Murray and Henry Fleiss created the laid-back, mid-century modern enterprise for owner-developer James Rouse and his firm.


Much like its neighbor Roland Park, Cross Keys was a planned community, with an entry gatehouse, a rule book and covenants. Woe to a resident who planted a hydrangea in the wrong spot. Order, architectural harmony and mossy landscaping established a tone.

The village center, marketed as a quadrangle, was built with warm brick walls and trim painted in a never-changing gray-green paint — technically “willow mist," a not unpleasant hue that reminds some visitors of the 1961 Henry Mancini-Johnny Mercer song, “Moon River.”

The aim was to create a mellow environment that had little in common with a boisterous, sign-strewn downtown or a low-rent strip center on York Road or Park Heights Avenue. Quiet, polite and unashamedly elite, Cross Keys became a designation for office tenants too. There were lawyers, financial planners, medical people and many Baltimore architects. The firm of RTK&L had offices there after it decamped from Cathedral Street in Mount Vernon.

The first residents moved into apartments at 5100 Falls Road in 1964. They got there before the village center opened.

The original concept worked well for nearly five decades. The Village Square was designed as a retail downtown (some would call it a faux village) for the Cross Keys community. Octavia Chatard Dugan, a women’s clothier, opened in August 1965. Her shop remains in business.

Some old Baltimore favorites were among the first tenants: Silber’s bakery, the Equitable Trust Co., Carl’s hair salon, and Century shoe repair. It was a mix of uses — the Cross Keys Pharmacy, a liquor store, Chappell Brothers food market, Elite Laundry, a barber, Phyllis Mollett Travel Agency, a cheese shop and places like Boutique Caprice, Jones and Jones, Tennis Bum and the Party Store.

Other businesses would arrive — the Book Bag, Maron candy, Yogurt Tree, Checkers, Cobblers and Cleaners, Ruth Shaw, Leonard Greif photography, Bay Craft, Ferdinand Roten Galleries, H.C. Garthe Co. jewelers, Hess Shoes and The Pied Piper. Later came Donna’s restaurant, Nan Duskin, Talbot’s and Williams Sonoma.

For a shopping center that wasn’t a declared a shopping center, a good bit of money changed hands here.

The heart and soul of Cross Keys was its Village Food Center. It was busy and housed a delicatessen, grocery store and candy business. Owned by partners Irv Falk and Morris Tossman, it was a neighborhood favorite.

Cross Keys had the Roost, a restaurant where it was said that people who were important, or aspired to be, met for business dealings halfway between downtown, Towson and Pikesville. Parking and adjacency to the Jones Falls Expressway helped too.

When James Rouse died in 1996, a small memorial and sculpture were placed at Cross Keys, near his personal office. Cross Keys followed his Waverly Towers and Mondawmin developments and preceded Columbia and Harborplace.

Betty Cooke, the jewelry designer and owner of The Store Ltd., has been selling at Cross Keys since Sept. 20, 1965, when the shopping component of Cross Keys officially opened.

“I’ve seen them all,” she said this week. “There were once 32 stores and now we’re about 11. But I have high hopes for the future. Cross Keys is a big, open canvas.”