The Village of Cross Keys is a small version of Columbia. A very small version.
In many ways, Cross Keys served as a model for the Rouse Co. in the development of Columbia several years later. The concept for both is simple: homes, offices and retail space set in an attractive landscaped setting adjacent to major roads and public transportation.
The innovative community -- featuring 700 homes, an inn, bank and 24 stores and offices that are set around a commercial village center -- is bounded on the north by Northern Parkway and the south by the playing fields and buildings of the Polytechnic Institute and Western High School. It is sandwiched between the Jones Falls Expressway and Falls Road.
Once touted as a seminal concept in residential planning, Cross Keys remains popular as it prepares to turn 30 years old next year.
Its bucolic setting and attractive open spaces, winding lanes and plenty of trees and downtown convenience are still selling points with both professionals and retirees who have chosen to live in its townhouses or high- or low-rises.
After raising her family in a large house on East Seminary Avenue, north of Towson, Nancy Claster -- known to generations as Miss Nancy of "Romper Room" fame -- and her producer
husband, the late Bertram Claster, decided they wanted a smaller place.
In 1981, they purchased a three-bedroom condominium in Harper House on Hamlet Hill Road in Cross Keys.
"For Bert it was a security blanket. We no longer had to worry about taking care of a large yard and house," says Mrs. Claster, who has a wondrous view of the city from her enclosed 13th-floor sun room.
"On a clear day you can see forever. I can look out my window with my grandchildren and watch the fireworks in the Inner Harbor," she says.
"I'm seven minutes from Towson, 10 minutes to Pikesville and it's only 12 minutes to Hopkins Hospital. I can be on the Beltway in no time and the airport shuttle departs from the Cross Keys Inn -- it's a fabulously convenient location."
She also likes the mix of people here and the around-the-clock security. "I never feel that I'm by myself. There is an operator on duty 24 hours a day if I need something or there is an emergency."
She is fond of the paths, landscaping and open spaces. A daughter from California enjoys jogging on paths through the development.
A deli closes
Cross Keys has also been the home of such notables as former Gov. Harry R. Hughes and writers John Dos Passos and Ogden %% Nash. Mr. Nash once chastised the Rouse Co. in verse about the numerous cats that dined on the birds that visited his yard:
"At number 30 Olmstead Green;
One gray, one black, one black and white,
All insolence and appetite.
Like witches at Walpurgis' party
To them 'Scat!' simply means 'Eat Hearty!'
Here cats walk wild, but dogs on leashes.
Are cats a special privileged species?"
While the subject of birds and cats is no longer an issue, residents and neighbors are still talking about the closings in September of the Village Food Center and the Nan Duskin clothing store.
Gone with the grocery store-deli's closing is the famous mouth-watering fried chicken, jumbo sandwiches and a venue for friends and neighbors, residents and nonresidents -- the rich and not-so-rich who gathered there daily to schmooze and pass the time of day.
Gone as well is the convenience of home delivery that residents of Cross Keys had grown accustomed to -- even in the nadir of a Baltimore winter -- a tradition that could be relied upon when the palate desired a platter of first-cut corned beef or an order of groceries with which to entertain snowbound friends.
But Rouse executives say these changes are normal. "It's a transitional period and after 30 years this is to be expected and fully anticipated," says Tony Hawkins, group vice president for Rouse and director of mixed-use properties.
"Fifty percent of our original retail tenants have been here since 1964 and others have been here for an extended period of time," says Marty Stankis, Rouse vice president and Cross Keys' general manager.
"It's an opportunity for us to do some re-merchandising and to update the center. It's not something we feel we have to do slam bang, and we'll find new tenants for the deli space, that's a certainty."
In the past week, the neighborhood welcomed a new retailer: Gazelle of Cross Keys, a furniture and home-decorating store.
A golf course transformed
Begun in 1962 on the former 72-acre Baltimore Country Club golf course, the neighborhood takes its name from a former tavern on the Falls Road Turnpike.
At the time, the project was considered a symbol of Baltimore's renaissance. The developer, James W. Rouse, proclaimed that it would be "a beautiful and distinguished residential community."
In 1973, a $3 million expansion was followed by the building of Harper House, a 15-story brick-and-glass structure that was completed in 1976.
"It's one of my favorite places in Baltimore," says Walter G. Schamu, a Baltimore architect. "The scale of the architecture is very human -- all background stuff -- and not egotistic. It was designed to be a pleasant place to live within the city limits and so it is." Mr. Schamu finds much about the development appealing, from its careful landscaping to its gatehouse that overlooks Falls Road.
"Rouse's concept of the gatehouse for instance wasn't to keep people out but to welcome them. It was a welcoming gesture for people to come in and shop, visit friends or have a bite to eat.
"Cross Keys has been a success from Day One, and its day is still with us. If you want to live in town with greenery, shops and not a lot of maintenance to worry about, this is a very viable alternative to living in the urban core."
Roger D. Redden, a lawyer with Piper & Marbury, first moved to Cross Keys as a renter with his wife, Gretchen, and now owns a condo.
"We've lived here 12 years and found it enormously convenient. Let's face it," Mr. Redden says, "it's a little like living in Manhattan. I don't want to cut grass, and it's close to downtown."
Timothy M. Rodgers, president and chief executive of the real estate firm Hill & Co., whose offices have been in Cross Keys for 10 years, says home prices range from $40,000 to $217,000.
"What is exciting is the variety of housing options that are available. And you can't overlook the fact that a lot of folks who live here are fortunate to be able to walk to work, and that's a real plus," he says.
Glen G. Berger, 40, has lived in Cross Keys most of his life.
"I first came here as a renter in a garden apartment in 1977 and then moved away in 1980. I returned in 1984 when I moved into the Harper House. It's an adult-oriented environment that is very quiet and serene and there's a mix of people here -- young professionals as well as empty-nesters. And I like that."
* Population: 1,200 (Rouse Co.)
* Commuting time to downtown Baltimore: 15 minutes (MTA bus service on Falls Road, Light Rail station on Cold Spring Lane)
* Commuting time to Washington: 1 hour
* Public schools: Hampden Elementary, Robert Poole Middle, Western and Baltimore Polytechnic Institute High.
* Shopping: Shops within the neighborhood complex, as well as shops the Rotunda supermarket, in Mount Washington and Roland Park.
* Nearest mall: Towsontowne Center, 7 miles north
* Points of interest: Cylburn Mansion and park, Baltimore Country Club, St. Mary Seminary School of Theology, the historic Roland Park shopping center and water tower, historic Mount Washington, Roland Park Country School, Byrn Mawr School, Gilman, Friends School and the Cathedral School.
* Zip code: 21210
* Average price of a condomium*: $102,778 (26 sales)
* Average price for homes sold through the Mid-Atlantic Real Estate Information Technologies multiple listing service over the past 12 months