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A step into history

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Baltimore's newest proposed historic preservation district lacks all the hallmarks of urban cuteness: There are no Williams Sonoma kitchens, garden walls of manicured ivy or garages with Saabs and Volvos.

No indeed. The 2600 block of Wilkens Ave. has backyard rose trellises fashioned out of discarded streetcar window grates; it sits near noisy scrap-metal yards; its corner businesses are a shot-and-beer bar and Joan's Twirl-a-Kurl beauty shop.

Somehow the 2600 block of Wilkens Ave., with its matched set of 54 orange-brick rowhouses built in 1912 for streetcar conductors, slaughterhouse and garment industry workers, does not fall neatly into the mold of gentrified and remade preservation districts such as Bolton Hill or Federal Hill.

But it is about to join the ranks of Baltimore's silk-stocking districts.

Recently, two elderly residents who rarely leave the neighborhood for downtown Baltimore brought decades of memories and deep love for their hard-working block to the city's Commission for Historic and Architectural Preservation.

By the end of this brief meeting, the preservation panel had enthusiastically endorsed their request for official historic status. The measure will go to hearings before other city agencies, where approval is expected.

This is a place where we call them marble steps, not stoops," said Gerald Hartke, a retired Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. worker who has lived on Wilkens Avenue for nearly all his 85 years.

With some help from his cane, he made the trip to a City Hall Plaza office building and used an impressive knowledge of neighborhood history to make the case for his street.

The newly proposed historic district is actually the south side of the 2600 block of Wilkens Ave., which, at 1,180 feet, is nearly three times as long as a typical city block in the urban grid. The block is so long there's an MTA bus stop at its midsection.

"It is the longest unbroken block of rowhouses in Baltimore, maybe the world," said Eddie Leon, a city planner on the staff of the preservation agency.

Numbering puzzle

The experts can't seem to come to an authoritative conclusion as to whether this is the longest stretch of rowhouses in the world or the country. It certainly is Baltimore's longest -- so long it confounds the hundred-block system of house numbering adopted here in 1888.

Houses are numbered beginning at 0 (the even side of the street) or 1 (the odd side) up to 99 -- enough for 50 on each side. But because there are 54 houses here, four of them get half numbers -- 2691 1/2 , 2693 1/2 , 2695 1/2 and 2697 1/2 -- in the stained-glass transom above the front door.

The city's preservation panel has dubbed the block the "Mill Hill Deck of Cards Preservation District."

The longest block has long been recognized by photographers and students of Baltimore arcana. But because the homes were standard Baltimore 1912 two-story, 14-foot-wide rowhouses, they didn't get too much interest in and of themselves.

So with the special qualities of the block in mind and the signatures of a majority of residents, Mr. Hartke made his pitch to the commission.

It wasn't a tough sell.

With painful steps, he approached the commissioners -- and they applauded.

"The block sets itself off from the rest of Baltimore," he told them. "These are good-built homes; they always had a good name. We have a lot of people who come from out of town to take pictures."

The homes were developed by Walter L. Westphal through contractor B. J. McCullough. He used a hard-fired, nearly waterproof Roman brick then in fashion. It is called iron-spot, because the masonry surface is speckled with dots darker than the prevailing dark-orange background color.

Steps cleaned

The steps -- not stoops -- still get tender care. Residents are proud of their Beaver Dam marble, the hard limestone quarried in Baltimore County and used on the front windowsills and their locally famous steps.

"I get myself a mop and a bucket with soap. I stand on one of the steps and clean them up and hope I don't fall," said Alice Brown Clifton, who turned 90 Sept. 12.

She has lived on the block for 60 years and spoke before the preservation panel.

"The neighborhood has changed because so many of the older people have died," she said. "People recognize me, but we don't know each other the way we once did."

Recycled from streetcars

Residents old or new like to show off their homes' pressed-tin ceilings, stained-glass windows, skylights, mantelpieces and front parlors with fancy columns. Some of the front doors are grained to imitate oak.

Here and there a backyard garden has a fence recycled from old Baltimore streetcar window guards.

When the trolleys were being scrapped at a nearby yard (United Iron and Metal, itself still a source of community contention), resourceful neighbors got the idea to make fences and rose arbors out of these tough grates. Many are still in place nearly 50 years later.

"I'll tell you, you couldn't find a better fence than one made from those old grates," Mr. Hartke said.

Some families still decorate the insides of their front windows in little scenes easily viewed from the wide pavement. This time of year it's a Halloween theme of ghosts and pumpkins arranged next to the sheer lace curtains.

Old industries

The older residents possess a strong sense of neighborhood history.

They recall the old industries, the streetcars and tracks that ran down the middle of Wilkens Avenue until the 1930s, along with the pigs and cattle being run down the middle of the street and into the old stockyards and slaughterhouses of Southwest Baltimore.

They fondly recall the nuns and priests at St. Benedict's Roman Catholic Church and school just across the street.

The Angelus bell in the church's tower rings each morning at 6, as the first No. 31 buses are grinding their transmissions up the Wilkens Avenue hill, a gentle rise above the banks of the Gwynns Falls Valley that imparts a decided top, middle and bottom to the block of 54 contiguous houses.

Thanks to its geography, the midpoint of the block sits at the top of a long straightaway, one that allows residents to look deep into Violetville and Arbutus.

'Hair mines'

"When I was a child and was bad, my parents would take you out on the front steps and point to St. Mary's Industrial School there in the distance," said Gerald Hartke, referring to the old manual training school where Babe Ruth was once a student.

They recall the old William Wilkens animal hair factory, a place where pig bristles and horsehair were turned into paint brushes and stuffing for mattresses and furniture.

The Wilkens factory, today the site of the West Side Shopping Center, was called the "hair mines" by neighborhood boys 75 years ago, Mr. Hartke said.

"One of the greatest days of my life was when my landlady called me and said she'd sell the house I own now for $5,000," Mrs. Clifton said.

"It was a good, good buy."

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