A photographic tour of Towson

Melissa Schehlein, a Towson native, walked the streets and byways of the Baltimore County seat in search of what was while documenting with her camera what is.

The result of her search was the recently published book, "Towson: Then and Now," a 96-page photo essay that takes readers on a tour of contemporary Towson, which she contrasts photographically with images of earlier years.


In her introduction, Schehlein writes that Towson is the "commercial, political and cultural heart of Baltimore County," and her mission and "primary emphasis is York Road, our defining corridor."

She does, however, take a few side excursions into neighborhoods east and west of the York Road corridor.


York Road, also known as Route 45, was — until the opening of the Harrisburg Expressway in the 1950s — the primary route for travelers between Baltimore and York, Pa., and destinations beyond. It is Towson's main drag.

I found myself becoming almost wistful for the charming village Towson once was and railing against what it has become.

It seems as though planners and developers have gone out of their way to make its commercial heart a repository for a motley collection of contemporary architecture worthy of former Eastern Bloc countries.

In many ways, the present Towson reflects the words of H.L. Mencken, who wrote in his essay "The Libido for the Ugly," published in 1927, of the "love of ugliness for its own sake."

"There really is no there there in Towson. I've heard it referred to as 'The Gateway to Timonium and Lutherville,'" James A. Genthner, a Timonium resident who retired from the State Highway Administration, said with a laugh.

"The Towson of the 1950s was nothing more than a sleepy village and was only a good place to go for a couple of drinks," he recalled.

What charm Towson possessed seems to have belonged to an earlier age, before the wrecking ball began swinging its way through the town in earnest after World War II.

Towson's complexion began to change when Hutzler's opened its massive store in 1952, followed eight years later by the 13-story Investment Building on York Road, which languished in recent years as a "sick building" and is now being converted into a "glass-encased modern edifice," writes Schehlein.


In 1974, the new Baltimore County library opened. Schehlein describes the building as an example of brutalist architecture, and she's not kidding.

Two year later, the massive Penthouse with its 215 condominiums began rising on Allegheny Avenue, and would eventually dominate the Towson skyline.

Schehlein drew me in on the title page with an April 11, 1912, image (taken four days before the Titanic sank on its maiden voyage) looking north on York Road at Pennsylvania Avenue.

It shows plenty of horses and buggies, with nary an automobile in sight. The only concessions to modernity are spidery telephone poles. Otherwise. this scene could have been from 1872.

Sharp-eyed readers will detect at the lower left a small crescent moon of streetcar trackage where the No. 8 line veered off York Road and carried cars to Washington Avenue on what was essentially a loop, where they paused in front of the Baltimore County Courthouse.

Streetcars bound for Baltimore and Catonsville left Towson via Chesapeake Avenue and then rejoined the York Road line.


Several years ago, the trackage that was rendered superfluous after streetcar service ended in 1963 briefly reappeared during a street-paving project.

I suppose it was divine intervention that spared the Solomon Schmuck House, a diminutive, circa-1830 Federal-style stone house just north of the Towson roundabout, from demolition. It is reportedly Towson's oldest surviving building.

After serving as a residence, it housed a silversmith, became home to the Valley Gun Shop, and is now a bridal boutique.

Gino Marchetti

The building closed years ago. Today, as Schehlein notes, the building's windows are shrouded in brown wood, giving it "boarded-up eyesore" status.

When Gino's cranked up the Fryolators and began cooking hamburgers and chicken again this past summer, it chose a location on LaSalle Road, east of Towson.


I've lived in and around Towson for more than three decades, but until I read Schehlein's book, I had never heard the tale that the now-demolished Tuxedo House on York Road near Burke Avenue, the former 1799 residence of the Bowen family, had a brothel on its second floor during the 1950s.

In my opinion, some of the classiest buildings in Towson are to be found in the vicinity of the impressive county courthouse, whose cornerstone was laid in 1854. I'd also nominate the Works Progress Administration-era post office and the castlelike Maryland National Guard Armory.

I'd also add nearby Stephens Hall on the grounds of Towson University, which dates to 1916, because of its distinctive green copper-clad roof and massive clock tower overlooking York Road.

The 10-story Towson Commons at Chesapeake Avenue and York Road, built in the early 1990s, suffered frequently throughout its history from vacancies. The complex, whose restaurants and movie theater eventually closed, was foreclosed on in 2010 and sold at public auction for $28.5 million.

Nevertheless, just this past week, the Towson Times reported that the Cordish Cos. plan to go ahead with a proposed Towson Circle III project, housing restaurants and a movie theater, which will be built on a 4-acre site east of York Road.

"Our community has faced relentless growing pains in every modern decade," writes Schehlein. "Towson's built environment and public spaces have been obliterated and transformed so thoroughly that precious few examples remain to tie the present to the distant past."