As they watch people leave the city for the suburbs, the residents of Dixon's Hill realize how fortunate they are. They didn't have to cross the city line to live in one of the best suburban communities.
Their historic enclave may be one of Baltimore's oldest planned suburbs, but it more than holds its own against anything built today.
With its beautiful trees, winding roads, and huge homes, it's hard to believe it's in the city. "We're in the city but it's a village," explained the Rev. Lance Gifford, rector of St. John's Episcopal Church in Mount Washington.
Instead of being miles from schools, stores, and churches -- as in new subdivisions springing up in farm fields in the counties -- the families of Dixon's Hill just walk to the bottom of their hill and they're at the Shops at Mount Washington.
"I walk to work," said Gifford, whose church is on nearby Kelly Avenue.
The Dixon's Hill and Mount Washington area was Baltimore's first commuter-rail suburb, and that hasn't changed. Instead of crawling along the Jones Falls Expressway, one can take the light rail into the city, just as residents took the Northern Central downtown in the 1880s.
But it's the architectural quality of the neighborhood that makes the biggest impression. "The houses are all really unique," said Martha Lessner, an agent with Gilbert D. Marsiglia & Co. "And people don't move," she explained. Only two houses have been for sale in the past year.
Lessner is listing Paul Thompson's house on Gernand Road, the only house in the neighborhood currently on the market.
Thompson is leaving his house of 23 years for a smaller home now that his kids are in college. His house shows up on an 1832 plat as a two-room schoolhouse on the original estate. The house has grown through the years, but Thompson's favorite addition to the historic house is its porch.
"My neighbor across the street and I used to joke that we could both sit on our porches and talk to each other and never raise our voices," said Thompson, an environmental consultant.
It's ironic that today's new suburbs fight tooth and nail to keep out nonresidential activities, but one of the country's oldest suburbs has lived side-by-side for half a century with a nonprofit organization that helps people with disabilities. The Chimes came to Dixon's Hill when it purchased a large home off Thornbury Road in 1951. It later acquired two more homes and the former Mount Washington Presbyterian Church. The historic houses are used as residences for children, adults and seniors with special needs, such as mental retardation.
One reason for the good relationship with the neighbors is that The Chimes has retained the original ambiance of the outside of the historic houses, explained Marge Wisnom, director of development and corporate communications. "It's important that our homes look as good as the other homes on Dixon's Hill. And the interiors are still very beautiful," she said.
According to "A Guide to Baltimore Architecture," in 1856, the Hill's namesake, architect Thomas Dixon, bought Clover Hill Farm and he and his brother built homes for themselves. Others had built large villas there as well. After the Civil War, Dixon subdivided the property and designed 35 houses along a winding road on the top of the hill.
Baltimoreans lived near their work before the Civil War, but with access to the railroad that ran along the Jones Falls, the wealthy could now live in the country and commute to the city four miles away. Initially a colony of summer residences, by the mid-1880s Dixon's Hill was a bedroom community. Bankers and presidents of large companies made their homes there.
The neighborhood, which pre-dates other planned suburbs such as Roland Park and Sudbrook Park, boasts one of the finest collections of post-Civil War residential architecture and is part of a Baltimore City Historic District.
"It's a top-quality example of early suburban architecture," said Jim Wollon, chairman of the Historic Architect's Roundtable of the Baltimore Architecture Foundation, also known as the Dead Architects' Society. "Dixon was one of the older, more experienced architects in Baltimore," he said.
The houses on Dixon's Hill were designed in what were called "picturesque styles." One of them was the Stick Style -- houses with exposed wooden structural members that gave them a unique stick-built character.
Besides his houses on the Hill, Dixon also designed the church the Chimes now uses. With various partners, he is responsible for some major buildings including, the City Jail Gatehouse, Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital, and the Baltimore County Courthouse. On a ridge across from Dixon's Hill is the Mount Washington Octagon, which he designed in 1855.
In addition to its architectural uniqueness, Dixon's Hill's intimate scale lends itself to being a close-knit neighborhood. "We have great neighbors. We often dine with each other," said Gifford.
Like Thompson, Gifford appreciates the historical features of his house, which was built in 1900. "We're very happy. We love our porch."
ZIP code: 21209
Commuting time to downtown Baltimore: 15 minutes
Public schools: Mount Washington Elementary School, Fallstaff Middle School, Northwestern High School
Shopping: Shops in Mt. Washington; Fresh Fields; Greenspring Shopping Center.
Homes on market: 1
Average listing price: $275,500*
Average sales price: $250,00*
* Based on 2 sales in the past 12 months compiled by Metropolitan Regional Information Systems Inc. (www.homesdatabase.com)