This is part 3 of a 3-part series.
As described in the first two parts of this series, the Laurel area was caught short in being able to provide housing to a large influx of new residents starting in the mid-1950s. This population explosion was mostly in response to new employment opportunities in the area, such as NSA headquarters at Fort Meade and the Goddard Space Center in Greenbelt, and an expansion of the major road system through and around Laurel. High-speed commuter routes were now available in every direction, making Laurel a desirable place to live.
Parts 1 and 2 focused on housing that boomed during this period in Fairlawn, West Laurel and the Route 197 corridor. A fourth major housing area was Maryland City.
In the early 1950s Harry Boswell, a real estate developer from Mount Rainier, purchased 1,200 acres of woodland in Anne Arundel County just past the Laurel Race Track on Route 602, which was built as a military access road to Fort Meade during World War II. In the early 1960s, Route 602 later became part of Route 198.
Boswell had a vision for his property: "Meade City," a 5,000-home, self-sustaining community serving the growing population of the Laurel/Fort Meade area. According to the Washington Post in 1953, Boswell's vision included "detached homes, group housing, apartments, offices, retail shopping, wholesale businesses, industrial plants, schools, churches, parks, and other facilities." Boswell also "said a bid has been submitted to the General Services Administration offering a 30-acre tract free as the site for a Social Security Building. The agency is now housed in several buildings in Baltimore and is seeking a new site." The land he purchased included the tract on the south side of Route 198 where the original Maryland City development currently stands, as well as the area on the north side where the Russett community was built in the 1990s.
But Boswell was stymied for years trying to get sewer lines installed. County, state and federal governments were all involved. According to the Post in 1955, the state Health Department refused "to permit the discharge of additional sewage, even if fully treated, into the overloaded Patuxent." Anne Arundel County approved the use of septic tanks, but "both the Federal Housing Administration and the Veterans Administration have indicated a reluctance to approve loans for disposal systems of this type." The county's solution was to ask the federal government to finance a study of potential ways to provide sewage facilities in the Patuxent River basin.
Boswell's response to the bureaucratic merry-go-round was to announce that he would build his own sewage disposal plant in Meade City. But Anne Arundel County said it refused to participate in a meeting to discuss his proposal because the state Board of Health would not be there. Although Boswell's proposal went nowhere, optimism still prevailed. Gertrude Poe, then-editor of the News Leader, wrote in 1956 that "Meade City … will start construction of some 500 houses this summer if certain 'mechanical blocks' can be surmounted."
But the delays and bureaucratic inaction led Boswell to bail on the project before a single shovel of dirt had been turned. In 1960 he sold the land to a young Baltimore developer, E. Harvey Kayne, for $3 million, who retained Boswell's vision but renamed the development Maryland City.
The 30-year-old Kayne was relatively new to housing construction, having recently completed his first project-280 homes in Pleasantville, near Glen Burnie, according to the Post. Kayne's plans for Maryland City added some new community features: a medical center, a community center and an outdoor amphitheater. Kayne was particularly concerned with preserving trees. "Maryland City's plan not to scalp the residential landscape" was reported in the Sun.
In the first of many predictions to not be met, Kayne indicated that the sewage issues were minor, construction would begin in October 1960 and the houses would start at $9,000. His model homes and an "exhibition building" would be completed by mid-fall.
Once again, Gertrude Poe was optimistic: "… though we are still skeptical about some aspects of the mammoth undertaking, it would appear that a rumor is at long last going to become a reality. Harvey Kayne, who has been described a 'genius' when it comes to building, expects to have this city completed within four years. One of his spokesmen declared he would build eight houses a day once underway."
Just one month later, the barrage of delay announcements started. In November 1960, it was announced that the model homes would not be ready until February 1961 and occupancy was pushed to May. Kayne told the Post it was "the result of delays in obtaining a schedule for the installation of water and sewer facilities." Curiously, on the same day he told the Sun that the "project was moved ahead to work out engineering and technical revisions prompted by an unexpected response for housing." This was required, he said, "due to the 450 inquiries [they] have received." He raised the first-year goal from 1,200 homes to 2,000 to meet this demand. That first shovelful of dirt was still waiting to be turned.
In March 1961 he announced that construction of model homes would "be underway within two months" and "houses will be available … by the middle of the summer." Groundbreaking ceremonies for the model homes took place on April 27, 1961, with then-Gov. J. Millard Tawes sitting on a bulldozer for a photo op near the present location of the Maryland City Volunteer Fire Department. The model homes were to be ready by June 10 and first occupancy in August. Years later, when Maryland City neared completion, the model homes were all moved to their present location on Brock Bridge Road, between the Baptist and Methodist churches, according to original resident LaVonne Hanlon, and were sold. Those six houses on Brock Bridge Road represent the different models offered. With the start of the model homes, the price of the houses was now announced to begin at $12,000.
At the groundbreaking, Kayne admitted that "water and sewer facilities could not be provided as soon as expected" and offered the Post new reasons for the delays: "The severity of the winter and a general laxness in the real estate market" and "it was not until April 19 that a settlement on the ground could be made."
The model homes opened on June 24 to huge crowds. The Post reported that 25,000 people toured the models in the first weekend, with 200 deposits made of $1,000 each. Within a few weeks, an estimated 50,000 people showed up. Prospective buyers also learned that all the houses carried ground rent of $99 a month, according to Hanlon. Kayne promised that construction would begin in August.
By the end of August, more than 600 deposits on houses had been paid, but that first shovelful of dirt still had not turned.
Finally, on Oct. 2, construction began after Kayne announced an agreement with the Anne Arundel County Sanitary Commission for public sewer and water facilities. "Barring any early freeze-up" a January occupancy was predicted, according to the Post.
While basements were being dug, an on site modular production area was built. The idea was to pre-cut all lumber in mass quantities, and assemble walls and trusses in the production area before sending them to the houses underway, where everything was assembled and finished. This efficient system was the subject of an extensive profile in House & Home magazine, which led to the site being visited by developers from all over the country to study the process.
However, this impressive flurry of activity didn't translate into occupancy until the sewer and water lines were actually installed. On May 31, 1962, Kayne announced that they would finally be installed by July 15, and he predicted that "at least 600 homes will be occupied by the end of this year," according to the News Leader.
Even Poe's optimism was wearing thin. In August, she wrote "When asked if his initial announcement to build 5,000 homes is still true, he replied 'It is, if the demand continues — and we are sure it will." She asked Kayne about his promised commercial center: "Kayne's comment on this phase was a little vague, 'as I'm not handling the details on that.' "
The construction process and pace was impressive. The "field fabrication shop" turned out a remarkable amount of pre-cut and fitted pieces daily on their assembly line. The carpenters assembling the pieces and doing finish work were turning out three houses a day. On Sept. 20, Kayne told the media that first occupancy is expected "very shortly."
This time, he was right. In the first week of October, the Beattie family was the first to occupy their home on Old Line Avenue. The News Leader did an extensive profile of the family, who described the "parade of prospective neighbors" that made them feel like a "tourist attraction." The family owned and operated the Beattie News Agency on Main Street in Laurel. It was an unusual article, commenting on Mrs. Beattie's enthusiasm and promoting for Maryland City. "She's a born salesman! Combine this instinctive salesmanship with a genuine Front Royal, Virginia, accent, a trim figure and the kind of attractive face that bears a touch of lipstick, but could easily do without it, and you've really got something."
By the end of November, 150 homes were occupied and construction was buzzing, but trouble loomed ahead.
Debts, broken promises
Things seemed to move along nicely for a couple of years, although sales slowed from the initial rush. But behind the scenes, things were going very badly. In May 1964, Kayne applied to the FHA for a conditional commitment to finish houses under contract, which was denied. On Oct. 1, 1964, with 640 homes occupied, Harvey Kayne resigned as president of the Maryland City Corp., and the company filed for bankruptcy, claiming debts of $1.4 million.
In January 1965, the Weaver Bros. mortgage firm filed suit against Maryland City Corp., claiming they were owed $3.5 million. Residents were nervous because some occupied homes were possibly subject to the lawsuit. The attorney for the plaintiffs explained to the Sun that this was because "before final settlement could have been made the lenders would have had to sign a release clearing the title." The suit involved all lots that were under construction or undeveloped.
Things moved quickly. Three weeks later, 361 unfinished Maryland City homes were auctioned in a foreclosure sale ordered by the Anne Arundel Circuit Court. Weaver Bros. bought all the homes for $3.4 million and told the media they would resume building within 60 days. The company announced that "upon completion of the houses, prices would be determined for each and those with contracts would be given first choice."
LaVonne and Don Hanlon were caught in the middle of that. "We had to buy our house twice" after losing their original deposit before the bankruptcy, LaVonne Hanlon said. They moved into their home in October 1965.
Most of Kayne's original vision never came to pass, at least not as part of the developers' efforts. There is a very large commercial and retail component to Maryland City, but most of that came decades after the developers left town. When the development efforts by Kayne and Weaver Bros. finished, the goal of 5,000 homes fell far short. Only about 1,200 were built by the developers. Since then, other development efforts, particularly Russett, have pushed the number significantly higher.
The original Maryland City residents were resourceful. Methodists had been waiting for years for the developers to build promised churches to no avail. Around 1976, when plans for Meade High School were announced, someone in the congregation knew that an Army chapel sat on the location for the school. The church bought the chapel from Fort Meade for $100 and had it moved to Brock Bridge Road, where it sits today as the Community United Methodist Church.
History Matters is an occasional column rediscovering Laurel's past. Information for this story was found at the Laurel Historical Society. Do you have old pictures or stories to share about a historic event in Laurel? Contact Kevin Leonard at firstname.lastname@example.org or 301-776-9260.