Crafting a place in history The Palmer-Lamdin homes

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The names Edward L. Palmer and William D. Lamdin don't mean much to Baltimoreans today. They'll occasionally crop up in a real estate ad, but few buyers recognize the significance of owning a home they designed.

Palmer and Lamdin were prolific and influential residential architects here before World War II. Their work was cherished by Baltimoreans of taste -- placed in the same league with Potthast Brothers furniture, Kirk or Schofield silver and O'Neill table linens.

Reporter H.L. Mencken commissioned Palmer and Lamdin for a threshold on his Victorian rowhouse facing Union Square. Novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald lived in one of the partners' stylish Charles Street apartments. And Mr. Palmer designed nearly 1,000 houses in Dundalk as well as its 1920s shopping center.

Today it's hard to imagine Baltimore without their grace notes: the chateau-like roof of the Northway Apartments on Charles Street near University Parkway; the stucco patio and fish pond at Saint Paul Court, St. Paul Street and 32nd; the herringbone brickwork on the Homewood Garage at 3330 St. Paul; the steeple, clock tower and pillars of Second Presbyterian Church on St. Paul and Stratford Road; and the limestone walls and twin domes of St. Casimir's Church in Canton.

Palmer and Lamdin's work will be remembered tonight with with a slide lecture at 7 p.m. by architect Michael Trostel at the Evergreen House theater of the Johns Hopkins University, and with a tour of homes they designed in Guilford on Saturday.

"Palmer and Lamdin were among the pre-eminent architects iMaryland between the two world wars," Mr. Trostel says. "They were noted for their fine sense of proportion and the refinement of theirdetailing."

Mr. Palmer's daughter, Cockeysville resident Anne Sinclair-Smith, remembers her father as a man who was not one to boast of his accomplishments.

"He was not a self-promoter," she says of her father, who grew up on Eutaw Street. "He was the most modest man in the world, but he did have a tremendous sense of humor. He loved the stars and was fascinated by astronomy. He also liked sailing in the Magothy and Bay off Gibson Island."

"My impression of the society he worked in was that it was very small," she adds. "He knew his people very well and designed houses for his friends. He liked nothing better than to have lunch at Marconi's Restaurant and sit and talk to H.L. Mencken or his friends at the Hamilton Street Club."

While the architects' names may have been forgotten by many, those who own Palmer-Lamdin homes still regard them as treasures. Just ask Bill and Ilene Roberts of Guilford, whose home is included on Saturday's tour.

The first time Mr. and Mrs. Roberts caught sight of the house with the whitewashed brick walls and green trim at the entrance to the community, their response was immediate: "This is the house we want."

They were moving to Baltimore from the West Coast and wanted a house in the city. They tried Federal Hill but couldn't come up with the right place. They were driving north when they spotted 3700 Greenway, a 1925 Palmer-Lamdin house.

"The house jumps out at you," Mrs. Roberts says. "We pulled up in front and said, 'That's it.' "

"These houses are instantly recognizable to long-time Baltimoreans," Mr. Roberts adds. "People are saying all the time, 'Those are my favorite houses in all of Baltimore.' One woman told me she'd been waiting 38 years to get inside my house to have a look."

The house was one of a non-identical pair constructed for two brothers, M. Oldham and W. Graham Lewis, who had a commission merchant business on Camden Street. Descendants of the Lewis brothers still lived in the home when the Robertses bought it three years ago.

The home, as well as its sibling next door, has a bluish-brown slate roof and distinctive color trim -- the windows are painted in two shades of spring green that have never been changed since the 1920s.

"The house has very romantic feel, yet it's really quite modern and simple," says Mr. Roberts.

The owners say its greatest asset is its placement on an expansive lot. The two houses seem dropped into the middle of a lush urban greensward at the pie-shaped tongue of park where Greenway and St. Paul Street cross.

The houses are designed in the shape of a cross and have numerous windows which face every direction. "They look bigger from the outside than they really are. It's a trick of the eye," Mrs. Roberts says.

Rowland and Mary Carbery Morrow live across a paved courtyard and fish pond from the Robertses. The Morrows lived in the nearby Oakenshawe neighborhood and were intrigued when 3701 St. Paul St. came on the market in 1976.

"The first time we looked at the house was at night. There were heavy draperies at the windows. It was spooky. We came back again in the day and pushed the curtains back. When the light filled the rooms, I saw the possibilities," says Mrs. Morrow, whose home also is on Saturday's tour.

Their home sits on a lushly landscaped lot filled with matur azaleas, a tulip poplar, Chinese elm and beech tree. It also has a porch, enclosed on three sides, that overlooks a carefully tended garden.

Palmer and Lamdin were better known for building unique clusters of homes than for designs such as the houses owned by the Robertses and Morrows. Homeland's Middleton Court, just off Paddington Road, provides a classic example.

The original October 1931 ad for the homes describes the court -- a dozen homes arranged within seven structures -- as being of Charleston architecture. Some have the whitewashed brick popular in the 1930s and a masonry coloration effect favored by the architects.

Richard Flint, a University of Maryland museum planner who lives on Middleton Court with his wife, Judy Gardner-Flint, and son, 5-year-old Christopher, says finding these Palmer-Lamdin designs brought to an end an exhaustive search for the ideal Baltimore home.

"We found this house and were delighted. Like its ad said, this is definitely not a typical center-hall Colonial." Instead of a house with long and dark hallways, his home has a square entrance hall and staircaselighted by a double-height window.

"The design is functional, efficient and very pleasing," Mr. Flint says. "The landscaping is especially well-integrated. Many of the original plantings have survived and flourish. The court is looking especially good in the spring, but there are crepe myrtles that burst into color during July and August."

Neighborhood lore has it that Middleton Court's builder, Clifton Wells (his motto was A Wells Built Home) nearly went into bankruptcy during the hard financial times of the Great Depression.

"He used the best materials and it must have been a hardship as conditions worsened," Mr. Flint says.

While Palmer and Lamdin may be best known for Baltimore homes, Mr. Palmer's most extensive project was outside the city some 981 stucco residences built in Dundalk, the community he created for World War I steelworkers and shipbuilders.

Good practical design and solid construction have stood the test of time, says Diane Pinter, proud owner of an Edward Palmer home at 10 Flagship Road (designed about 1918 before he became partners with Lamdin), where she lives with her husband, Frank, and daughters, Bethany and Katie.

"I realize that even though these homes are modest, they are good-looking and charming," says Mrs. Pinter, a founding member and vice chairman of the Greening of Dundalk, an organization that has planted 1,000 new trees since 1989. "They have slate roofs and maintenance-free stucco walls. We have porches. When I go into a newly developed community, there are no porches. Porches allow people to sit and wave to their neighbors."

Her home is one of hundreds that are all very similar, but seem different because of their configurations in groups. Palmer and Lamdin were often recognized as specialists in site-planning, a quality much in evidence along the streets of Dundalk.

The Olmsted Brothers, the noted landscape architects, designed the streets and general layout of the community, which has a central Palmer-Lamdin-designed shopping plaza. Its design was immediately acclaimed. The Sun called the neighborhood "A miniature Roland Park, . . . a picturesque mass of high pitched roofs and gables."

TALK AND TOUR

What: Lecture and slide show on the work of architects Edward L. Palmer and William D. Lamdin

When: 7 tonight

Where: Evergreen Theatre, Johns Hopkins University, 4545 N. Charles St.

Admission: $5.

What: Tour of six Palmer and Lamdin houses in Guilford

When: Meet at Evergreen Theatre at 1 p.m. Saturday. Tour returns at 4 p.m. for tea and a showing of Palmer and Lamdin drawings.

Admission: $35

Reservations: 516-0341.

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