In the past, almost nobody in Roland Park had air conditioning and nearly everybody said it was because of Ed Bouton and the Olmsted boys.
It's not that the ghosts of the trio have been standing at the gates of the place and running off the air conditioning salesmen. It's because long ago they planned a suburb, accessible by streetcar, where both humble country cottages and mansions could rise near each other without people getting edgy about the neighborhood and real estate prices. They created a haven where overheated residents of the city escaped to a place where cool breezes and plenty of trees shaded the inhabitants from the sweltering heat of the summer.
Mr. Bouton was the founder of Roland Park, the business manager and creator of the city's open and leafy section that is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. The Olmsted boys, John and Frederick, laid out five remaining sections of the suburban area soon after plat 1 had been pioneered by Mr. Bouton, a young Missourian from Kansas City with little formal training in land development. The section has held together as prime real estate ever since, and its planning will be honored today in a free walking tour designed to call attention to suburban landscape designs that stay fresh and actually improve with age.
Not the least of these amenities are the park's "paths."
"Initially these were put in for gentlemen to take short cuts to the Roland Avenue trolley line, which they used to get to work," says Claire Williams, of the National Olmsted Society. The paths are a point of pride to the neighborhood. Some were designed to take advantage of sunsets, others were laid out by the squirrels, she reports. Today, she says, it is standard procedure for landscape designers to take a look at where people walk.
The interior pathways, she notes, have actually been copied in laying out such modern planned communities, such as Columbia and Reston, Va. These pathways, perhaps Roland Park's
distinctive feature, are heavily planted and sheltered walkways, some with steps or mysterious with garden walls.
The walkways run largely on the sides of residences, connecting vernal vistas, rather than in the rear of buildings, alley-style. They are particularly indigenous on the western slopes of the neighborhood, areas that profit from natural breezes created by updrafts of air from the Jones Falls valley below.
Greenery, large swaths of it ancient, are hallmarks of the Roland Park landscape, especially mature magnolias, azaleas and rhododendron plantings, along with hardwood trees of prodigious size.
To get the impact of Roland Park in the far off 1890s one has to imagine what home life was like in that age. The really rich in summer lived on vast estates with gatehouses, natural springs and endless porches. Cool. The middle class could only escape from summer heat by leaving town for seashore or mountain resorts. Expensive. The poor were trapped in the city's tens of thousands of brick ovens.
What if you could hop a 5-cent streetcar ride and in a few minutes be in the middle of greenery? Swell.
Swell it was. The Roland Park country dream was not the first sophisticated planned suburb in town -- that honor belongs to Sudbrook Park in the northwestern corridor (designed by John and Frederick Law Olmsted, the famed planner of Central Park in New York City). An urban planned community of sorts had risen in the 1880s along "Belvedere Terrace" in the Mount Vernon district, and as long ago as the 1850s, Mount Washington had been laid out as a sort of leafy, rail-serviced suburb.
But of these, Roland Park was the largest. It survives today as a unique record of late 19th and early 20th century joinery and masonry, an outdoor museum of Victoriana and the Edwardian years that followed. America has plenty of these survivals, but few that, literally, have not changed much at all, except for the autos that roar up Roland Avenue and in winter get stuck in its cobblestoned gutters. Robert M. Moudry, in a recent detailed study of the Roland Park plan presented at the graduate school of Cornell University, says that "Bouton's belief in the long-term success of the suburb hinged largely on the ability of residents to maintain what existed and improve it creatively and responsibly." Today's tour has the aim of underlining that goal, sponsors report.
The free walking tour of Roland Park will begin at 9 a.m. and continue until 2 p.m. Tour brochures with maps will be available at the Enoch Pratt Branch Library, 5108 Roland Ave., where the tour will begin. Tour guides, largely neighborhood residents, will be available at each tour stop to answer questions.
From 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., sponsors will launch a separate house tour ($10 per person) of 10 distinguished 19th and early 20th century houses in the area. House tour tickets will be sold from a booth in front of Eddie's Supermarket, 5113 Roland Ave.