Nice homes, low prices beckon in Union Square Interesting mix of friendly folk

THE BALTIMORE SUN

"Phenomenal houses," says John Scott, when asked what lures people to Union Square in West Baltimore. "You just can't beat the housing here, not for the price."

Thirteen years ago, Mr. Scott decided to move from Towson into the city in search of a livelier neighborhood within walking distance of the Inner Harbor.

He looked elsewhere but bought in Union Square, a close-knit neighborhood 10 blocks west of Martin Luther King Boulevard, because he found a 12-room, Victorian rowhouse for $43,000.

Today, most rowhouses in Union Square sell for about $70,000 to $100,000, with very large houses selling for more and those in need of extensive repairs for less.

"I looked in Federal Hill but it was so much more expensive for smaller houses," Mr. Scott says. "They may have the better location, but we have the better houses."

Walking his dog, Rags, around the central square from which the community takes it name, Mr. Scott stops to speak with his neighbors, an eclectic mix of professionals, artists, craftsmen, business owners, university students and others.

The mix of people, as well as their friendliness, is a top selling point in this community, as are the historic landmarks, the most significant of which is the H. L. Mencken House at 1546 Hollins St.

Operated by the Baltimore City Life Museums and designated a national historic landmark, the brick rowhouse facing Union Square park was purchased by Mencken's father in 1883.

Victoria Hawkins, a curator with Baltimore City Life Museums who directs the museum, notes that Mencken was only 3 when his family moved into the house and, except for a brief period when he was married, lived in the house the rest of his life.

"The Menckens were the original owners. They had an 80-year occupancy here," Ms. Hawkins says.

"What's fascinating about it is that so many of the possessions and furnishings they accumulated over the course of their lives are still in the house."

Since his death in 1956, much has changed in and around Mencken's old stomping grounds. But many of Union Square's historic characteristics, including an ornate fountain and Greek Revival pavilion in the park, have been maintained over the years or restored in the past several decades.

"That's what attracts many people," says Jeffrey L. Soule, president of the Union Square Association, which represents about 900 households. "The historic nature of the neighborhood and the homes. You couldn't find this kind of quality in the suburbs."

Many of the larger rowhouses have 12-foot ceilings in large front parlors, three and four bedrooms, hardwood floors and wooden moldings throughout, plaster ceiling medallions, original handrails on staircases and other attractive features.

Created in the 1840s as a "speculative real estate development," Union Square had larger, more elegant homes surrounding the park for wealthier families and more modest three-story rowhouses on the side streets for workers from the surrounding industries.

During World War II, many of the larger homes were divided into small apartments, which started a downward turn in the neighborhood, residents say. But in the 1970s, urban "pioneers" began buying some of the houses, knocking down walls and restoring them to their former grandeur.

Debra and Francis Rahl, active participants in community activities, have been working on their 5,000-square-foot Stricker Street home for the past 15 years.

"I love it here. I like my neighbors; there's always something going on," says Mrs. Rahl, who runs a custom drapery businesses from her third-floor sewing room.

"We've done a lot in the neighborhood over the years to improve the appearance of things. We don't get the services from the city that we used to. . . . But we have a really active association that gets involved in most everything."

When the square's ornate fountain was vandalized, association member and craftsman Philip Hildebrandt fashioned a new figure to replace the one that was stolen. Later, when the fountain clogged and residents couldn't get City Hall to respond, the association stepped in and had it fixed.

The Mencken House, which needed exterior repairs, received $2,000 from the association to help defray the cost. Recently, in conjunction with the closing of The Evening Sun, for which Mencken wrote for so many years, The Baltimore Sun Co. donated $10,000 toward additional repairs to the house.

The largest project under way is the revitalization of the Enoch Pratt Library's Branch No. 2, built in 1886 and vacant for the past 10 years. The historic Romanesque building at the corner of Hollins and Calhoun streets was not only a favorite haunt of Mencken's, but of columnist Russell Baker, another of Union Square's famous sons.

Long overdue repairs will begin this fall, after two years of fund raising headed by the association, the Enoch Pratt library system and the Neighborhood Design Center, a nonprofit, revitalization organization that will relocate its offices to the building when renovations are complete this spring.

"It will be a terrific resource for the whole community," says Executive Director Carol Gilbert, who added that the Enoch Pratt Library will run a community information exchange program from the site. "The whole emphasis will be as a community revitalization center. Any time you revitalize a major landmark, it can have an exponential effect in revitalizing a whole neighborhood."

Just east of Union Square is Hollins Market, another historic neighborhood named for the popular city market built in 1839, where Union Square residents buy meats, bread, cheese, produce and seafood.

Although the second floor of the market has been vacant for decades, residents of both communities, which are joined geographically in a single historic district, are working to turn it into artists' studios and a gallery.

The community is not without its problems. Like other city neighborhoods, it suffers from vacant housing and absentee landlords, perceptions of rising crime, failed businesses and concerns about a failing school system.

But Union Square has managed to hang on as neighborhoods around it decline, say some residents, because the square provides a focal point, the historic landmarks are worth preserving and the grand houses still attract buyers.

The hands-on approach of the community association in tackling neighborhood problems doesn't hurt, either.

Mrs. Rahl, who heads the association's security committee, says when residents got fed up with "nuisance" crimes and loitering in the square and surrounding blocks, 80 families pooled their resources and started a seven-day-a-week patrol by off-duty police officers. Each family kicks in $36 a month for the service, which has greatly improved the situation, she says.

"I love my house. I'm not going to move," says Mrs. Rahl emphatically. "Why should I move just because some bozos are hanging out on the street corner. They're the ones who should move on."

UNION SQUARE:

Population: 3,600 (Union Square Association)

Commuting time to downtown Baltimore: 5 minutes

Commuting time to Washington: 60 minutes

Public schools: Steuart Hill Elementary School; Diggs Johnson Middle School; Southwestern High School.

Shopping: Hollins Market; Mount Clare Junction Shopping Center at West Pratt Street, with Safeway Supermarket; Food King Supermarket on Washington Boulevard

Nearest mall: Harborplace & The Gallery .

Nearby points of interest: H. L. Mencken House; Union Square House Bed & Breakfast; Edgar Allen Poe House; B&O; Railroad Museum on West Pratt Street; Carroll Park and Mount Clare Mansion; University of Maryland at Baltimore, 10 blocks east; Oriole Park at Camden Yards; Babe Ruth Museum on Emory Street; Baltimore's Inner Harbor, including Harborplace & The Gallery, the National Aquarium, the Maryland Science Center and Pier 6 Concert Pavilion.

ZIP code: 21223

Average prices of single family homes*: $60,800 (10 sales)*

* Average price for homes sold through the Mid-Atlantic Real Estate Information Technologies multiple listing service over the past 24 months.

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