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Housing styles reflect history


Anthony and Michelle D'Alessandro were willing to live with the small kitchen and narrow rooms of their Canton rowhouse to enjoy the city neighborhood's nightlife and convenience.

But after three years of jockeying for parking spots and paying what they feel are high taxes for their small home, the D'Alessandros are trading it in for a suburban home featuring cathedral ceilings, two fireplaces and lots of open space.

The D'Alessandros will be joining the suburban migration that has helped shape the architecture of local homes for generations.

They effectively will be retracing the architectural evolution of the region, from the Canton rowhouses, built to keep Baltimoreans close to where they worked and played, to today's suburban houses with their soaring ceilings and gourmet kitchens.

Experts credit a variety of reasons for the shifts in housing styles, from electricity and indoor plumbing to the automobile and the emergence of two-income families. Historians say the architectural changes have been significant over the years.

"Over the past hundred years, we've seen some interesting shifts in the inside of the home that have led to shifts in the external architecture," said Richard Guy Wilson, a professor of architectural history at the University of Virginia.

For example, technology has helped lead to a shift in emphasis from the traditional living room and dining room to the kitchen and the family room.

"Part of the reason kitchens keep becoming bigger is because we have more gadgets to store in them," Wilson said. "They didn't used to need as much room for things like stoves, dishwashers, refrigerators and other 20th-century inventions."

Wilson said the added space in the kitchen has helped make it the nucleus of the home and, in part, led to larger houses. For example, the average American home was 2,230 square feet in 2002, more than double the size in 1950, the earliest statistics available.

Part of the shift to larger homes also can be attributed to the rise of two-income families who could afford them, experts said.

Builders seized on the demand and began constructing "starter castles," said Walter Schamu, president of SMG Architects in Baltimore.

Schamu said various architectural designs are being used in today's homes, but described most new construction as Colonial revival. Those designs often include brick, stone or wood homes with shutters along with central and open entryways.

"I hesitate to use the word 'traditional' but that's what sells," Schamu said.

Builders say today's designs also reflect a grand style that helps showcase owners' higher incomes.

"In the big suburban homes, people want to impress their friends with open foyers, open family rooms, and nice kitchens," said Earl Robinson, vice president of sales and marketing for Ryland Homes.

Today's demands are quite different from those of earlier homeowners, because many early Baltimore residents wanted houses that used space efficiently because land and transportation was limited, experts said.

Near work

Francis P. O'Neill, senior reference librarian for the Maryland Historical Society, said the first homes in Baltimore and in America were mainly rowhouses because they could house more people on a smaller piece of land. And since many people walked to work during the 18th and 19th centuries, builders built homes near workplaces.

"The wealthy citizens of Baltimore mainly lived in areas like Little Italy, Fells Point and Federal Hill," O'Neill said.

Early upper-class citizens often would own a second home away from the center of the city to which they could retreat during the hot summer months. These detached vacation houses, mostly north of North Avenue, allowed for more windows, fresh air and large porches.

This lifestyle continued until about 1910, when transportation advances like trolley cars made it no longer necessary to maintain two homes. Many of the city's wealthier residents permanently moved into their vacation houses, and builders began constructing homes in outlying areas.

More land available

"As people became able to expand farther physically, a larger supply of land became available," said Charlie Duff, president of the community development organization Jubilee Baltimore.

The "daylight" rowhouses of Roland Park, Guilford, and Oakenshawe also began in the early 20th century, according to The Baltimore Rowhouse by Mary Ellen Hayward.

Some of the homes were semi-detached, allowing for more windows. Others were L-shaped, providing space in the back of the rowhouse to allow more light and better cross-ventilation during the summer months.

After World War II and the rising popularity of automobiles, homes began to be built even farther from downtown, said Eddie Leon of the Baltimore Commission for Historical & Architectural Preservation. That led to the construction of tract homes and years of suburban growth.

"GIs were coming back after living in close quarters and they were ready to spread out a little and have a place of their own," Leon said. "Many of these homes were built by industries as well as the government in order to house their employees."

Communities like Aero Acres, Cherry Hill and Dundalk were built to house workers at nearby companies like Glenn L. Martin and General Motors, Leon said. Many of the homes were built as tract housing and included small yards.

Several of the homes were one-story ranchers that typically included a carport and a small foundation. These styles were popular, Duff said, because they were cheap, convenient and they could be built quickly.

'A lot of kids'

"People had a little money and a lot of kids," Duff said. "They wanted to move out to the suburbs but they didn't want to do it for a lot of money. The ranchers were the answer because they were cheap and efficient."

Architectural designs also began to include garages and driveways in front of houses. As home designs progressed, the garage was moved to the side and back of the house as homeowners preferred to showcase the home's front entry.

"As more people could afford cars, they needed more places to park them," Duff said.

As household incomes grew, items like televisions and computers increased in size as well. That helped American homes morph again to include larger family areas.

Now homes are changing again to reflect a demographic phenomenon - aging baby boomers. They are opting for single-floor homes or returning to a rowhouse style that requires less maintenance.

Same size

Earl Robinson of Ryland Homes said builders now find themselves constructing detached homes and townhouses that are roughly the same size.

"With the townhomes, people are looking for something affordable, but they also want amenities like a two-car garage and an open foyer," Robinson said.

Some trends have come full circle. Some of the rowhouse neighborhoods of the past are being revitalized in Baltimore. Areas like Federal Hill, Fells Point and Canton have attracted empty nesters, singles and childless couples who want the convenience and nightlife the city offers.

But when their lives change, many opt for the more spacious suburbs.

"The house in Canton was a great place to live," said Anthony D'Alessandro, who built a $450,000 home in White Marsh on a large parcel of land.

"But after a while, you get sick of trying to find a parking spot."

City rowhouses

Homes like these in the 2000 block of E. Pratt St. were some of the first built in Baltimore. Rowhouses were designed to provide as much housing as possible on small parcels of land. The location also was important: It allowed workers to walk to their jobs when transportation was limited.


More large windows and porches dominated architecture before air conditioning made them less essential. Many of these features were inspired by the summer homes of wealthy residents maintained for comfort during sultry days and nights.

Tract homes

After World War II, the growing popularity of automobiles and a desire for greater space on the part of returning American soldiers prompted builders to construct affordable "cookie-cutter" tract homes with driveways and lawns. This spawned the suburbs.

High ceilings

New homes - whether built in a Colonial or townhouse style - often include high ceilings, multicar garages, several fireplaces and gourmet kitchens. Many of the homes help showcase the growing wealth of Americans.

City revisited

Empty-nesters and childless couples are rediscovering that city living is both convenient and fun. Brewer's Hill, Canton, Fells Point and Federal Hill are among the neighborhoods that continue to be revitalized.

Changes in the American home


1950: 1 percent of homes built had 4 bedrooms or more.

2003: 37 percent of homes built had 4 bedrooms or more

Number of stories

1950: 14 percent of homes built had two stories or more.

2003: 52 percent of homes built had two storeis or more.


1950: 11 percent of homes built had 2/5 bathrooms or more.

2003: 56 percent of homes bilt had 2/5 bathrooms or more.


1950: 53 percent of homes built had no garage or carport.

2003: 8 percent of homes built had no garage or carport.

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