In her 31 years helping patrons at downtown Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library, Julie Saylor has developed a skill. She can unlock the secrets of your home.
In her 31 years helping patrons at downtown Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library, Julie Saylor has developed a skill. She can unlock the secrets of your home. Assisted by the digitization of both public records and newspapers, she can establish when a North Montford Avenue rowhouse was built, who lived there and what its 1936 telephone number was.
Using old maps, she can often show what, if anything, stood on a site before the excavators and the carpenters moved in to build a home. For the truly lucky, she can find an old photo, if not of the house, of its general neighborhood.
She works at the Pratt’s Maryland Department, a repository of the state’s legacies. It’s a place where few mysteries remain unsolved for long.
One of her handiest tools for research on old houses is a simple one: an annual publication of the old Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Co. called the Baltimore Address Telephone Directory. It lists homes streets by street, with a secondary listing of the phone subscriber’s name. These books, which go back 90 years, were never publicly distributed, but the Pratt has a collection of them.
“They are where I often begin,” Saylor said as she also demonstrated another master argument-settler, the Sanborn insurance maps for Baltimore. These maps were bound in large volumes and used by lawyers and insurance firms. The maps show buildings in considerable detail and reveal the type of roofing and construction materials.
“Half the time the state tax assessment records about the age of a house are wrong,” she said. “House deeds are complicated, but I’ve learned a lot over the years.”
Saylor came to Maryland as a graduate student at the University of Maryland, College Park. She studied Medieval and Renaissance English literature and later entered the historic preservation program at Goucher College. She previously worked in the Pratt’s children’s department and spent years on the phone answering nettlesome reference queries.
In her early days in Baltimore, she said she was impressed by the rows of housing along Calvert and Saint Paul streets.
“It seemed like Dublin,” she said, vowing to put her curiosity about Baltimore’s housing stock to a positive use.
She has given public workshops about how to research a property. One of her most frequently asked questions is about a home’s original floor plan. Sadly, she said, such records rarely exist.
“We occasionally get people trying to do research on buildings threatened with demolition,” she said. "Actually, I’ll admit I was one of them, when Read’s Drugstore [at Howard and Lexington] was threatened. I did research and activism on this before I worked in Maryland Department.
“We also do sometimes get people from architectural/cultural resource management firms who are looking for info to use in historic preservation tax credit applications.”
She recalled she recently helped a class of Maryland Institute College of Art students researching Mount Royal Mansion in Reservoir Hill. They were looking for information on the mansion and its earliest owner, Dr. Solomon Birckhead.
Saylor, who lives in Northeast Baltimore’s Moravia-Walther neighborhood, is something of a Northeast Baltimore specialist. She is one of the moderators of the Northeast Baltimore History Roundtable’s Facebook page and works closely with another neighborhood activist, Chris Muldowney.
Occasionally, all this fact checking can yield some unsatisfactory outcomes. The story came up at the Pratt Library this week of the North Baltimore individuals who moved into a roomy house of their dreams. When a friend ran their address through the digitized newspaper files, the answer to why the house had an unusual floor plan, a room layout that seemed like a double dining room, surfaced.