The most famous building in Villa Nova no longer stands. It wasn't the colonial home of some early settler or the Victorian mansion of some wealthy businessman, but a ranch house that belonged to a legendary stripper. Her name was Blaze Starr.
The burlesque entertainer purchased the home in the 1950's and, according to her biography, planned to live there after she married Earl Long, the former governor of Louisiana. The story of their relationship was portrayed in the 1989 movie, "Blaze," starring Paul Newman.
That never came to be, but Blaze lived there until 1973, when Hurricane Agnes flooded the Gwynns Falls directly behind her property, flooding her home.
"It was so flooded, they used a boat which floated above her roof," remembered Joan Alston, a 35-year resident. "I saw some people with metal detectors afterwards, looking for jewelry she was said to have lost."
Baltimore County bought Blaze's home as well as all the rest in the flood plain along Queen Anne Road and created a beautiful park in their place that marks the southern boundary of Villa Nova, a suburb that's a mile and a half west of the city line. It's this park along the Gwynns Falls that buffers the neighborhood from busy Liberty Road, giving it a feeling of being deep in the woods.
"It's the woodland beauty of the neighborhood that makes it so special," said Joyce Holmes, current president of the Villa Nova Community Association. "We have herds of deer, fox, owls, and geese."
"People are surprised at the size of the trees," remarked Carolyn Webb. "It's like living the woods." Webb's husband, Peter, is a bird watcher and has observed colonies of night herons and assorted species of cranes in the park along the Gwynns Falls.
The trees do tower over the houses and the landscaping is quite lush, almost like a nature preserve. "Everyone takes real pride in taking care of their property; it becomes contagious," said Alston. It's important to the neighborhood that newcomers to Villa Nova keep up this ambiance, she said.
The neighborhood is also full of dog lovers, Alston said. So it was natural that the residents were very upset when they found out some people on Rockridge Road held dog fights in their house. The police quickly put an end to it.
Most of Villa Nova is made up of one-story brick ranchers. The seven houses currently on the market date from the 1950s and range in price from $89,000 to $135,000. There are some wood-shingled, four-square-style, two-and-a-half-story homes that date from the suburb's beginnings. Almost all the homes in the community are owner occupied with just a few rentals, something residents frown upon.
Though it seems to be in the middle of a forest, Villa Nova is only a stone's throw from Liberty Road, which leads directly into the city or connects to the Beltway, giving residents an easy commute in the morning. As with all successful communities, the residents look out for each other, especially with its Citizens On Patrol contingent.
"We act as the eyes and ears for the police," said Walter Beck, a resident since 1967 and a coordinator of COPS. As a result of their vigilance there's very little crime.
Villa Nova also has an annual picnic in July, a flea market and a neighborhood dinner in the fall.
The community's park-like qualities began with the purchase of 250 acres of forest belonging to the Moale estate along Liberty Road by the Villa Nova Company in 1904. The development company believed that Baltimore's suburbs would expand to the northwest and six years later they were proven correct when sales took off.
Instead of the normal size suburban lot of 50 by 150, Villa Nova's measured 150 by 250, three quarters of an acre. "Start right, get a big lot and be happy always," advised the ads for the community. The company made sure a lot of the woodland remained and the suburb's beautiful trees were a strong selling point from its very beginning. Their ads boasted of "fine old shade trees (you don't have to wait for these.)"
All suburbs needed transportation to become successful so when Liberty Road became a state highway in 1910, Villa Nova prospered. The company bought an additional 150 acres, bringing the total to 400 acres, even larger than Guilford, the elite suburb in North Baltimore just starting construction.
Houses were built into the 1930's, but it was after World War II when Villa Nova really developed. Comfortable brick ranchers filled up the remaining lots in the 50's and early 60's.
Starting in the mid-1970s, the Liberty Road corridor became one of the first areas in Baltimore County where middle class blacks began buying suburban homes. Thirty years later, Villa Nova is an integrated community, a fact many residents are proud of.
Most people want to live in a quiet, secluded community that's practically in the city. The residents of Villa Nova have that kind of lifestyle. "We've been very lucky," remarked Alston.
ZIP code: 21207
Commuting time to downtown Baltimore: 25 minutes
Public schools: Bedford Elementary, Sudbrook Middle, Milford Mill Academy High
Shopping: Woodmoor Shopping Center, Owings Mills Town Center
Homes on market: 7
Average listing price: $112,853 *
Average sales price: $110,220 *
Days on market: 140
Sales price as percentage of listing price: 96.67% *
* Based on 15 sales in the past 12 months compiled by Metropolitan Regional Information Systems Inc.