Moving to the suburbs in the late 19th century was a fashionable thing to do, particularly for wealthy residents of city neighborhoods like Mount Vernon and Bolton Hill. Roland Park, a North Baltimore development created in the 1890s, was not the first of its kind in this area to inspire relocation. But in many ways, “Roland Park was the catalyst for the Baltimore suburban movement that followed it.”
That’s what Douglas P. Munro wrote in his 2015 book “Greater Roland Park,” which takes readers on a photographic journey through the neighborhood’s history. Conceived as a garden suburb that incorporated topography into its planning, Roland Park’s spacious lots and large homes earned it a reputation as Baltimore’s premier neighborhood for the affluent. That status has endured through time.
» Border streets: Jones Falls, Northern Parkway, Roland Avenue, Wyndhurst Avenue, Stony Run, Oakdale Road, Schlenly Road, Cold Spring Lane
» Neighboring areas: North Roland Park/Poplar Hill, Wyndhurst, Loyola/Notre Dame, Evergreen, Keswick, Tuscany-Canterbury, Wyman Park, Hampden, Hoes Heights, Medfield, Cross Keys
“It’s still a very suburban feel, even though since 1919 all this has been in the city limits,” Munro said during a January tour of the neighborhood. “People around here aren’t ashamed of the word ‘suburb.’ We think it’s a great word. It’s used disparagingly lots of times, but nobody uses it disparagingly around here.”
With an almost non-existent crime rate and an average home price that exceeds $460,000, it’s easy to see why residents shrug off any seemingly derisive comments about the neighborhood’s suburban similarities. The exclusivity of Roland Park has always been a selling point.
Under the direction of Edward H. Bouton, the secretary of the Roland Park Company of Baltimore, the neighborhood was laid out in six distinct areas, with Plat 3 emerging “as the go-to place for the wealthy,” Munro said. “Why? That’s where the golf course is. … There are only two plats with the juxtaposition of modest houses and massive homes (Plats 1 and 5). Plats 2, 3 and 6 are more uniform in the sense of grandiosity.”
Roomy homes were certainly a draw, but Munro said that the Roland Park Company’s decision to bankroll the building of the golf course’s clubhouse and leasing the land on “incredibly favorable terms” added to the neighborhood’s cachet – particularly as fellow RPC developments Guilford and Homeland were taking off. The ease of transportation only aided Roland Park’s growth.
“People coming from Mount Vernon to play golf would take the street car along Roland Avenue and pass all these living advertisements for the Roland Park Company’s wares,” Munro said. “It was a brilliant move. In the long term, it paid off spectacularly for getting people familiar with the area.”
Behind the scenes, however, an unsavory strategy for growing RPC neighborhoods emerged. A 2014 Johns Hopkins Magazine piece chronicled those efforts.
“By 1912, Bouton and the Roland Park Company would push the legal limit and include blatant deed restrictions against African-Americans in Guilford,” Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson wrote. “In an era marked by Jim Crow laws and fears over public health and immigration, the Roland Park Company became a pioneer in selling planned communities for their safety, their incorporation of nature, and, above all else, their homogeneity. The company promoted the notion that the most desirable place to live should be exclusionary.”
In 1948, the Supreme Court ruled that courts could not enforce real estate covenants based on race. Roland Park still has covenants in place, though Munro said they exist for aesthetic purposes, such as “not having outhouses and chickens running about. I couldn’t have pigs, I couldn’t have chickens, I couldn’t have an outhouse and I couldn’t have a stable. Just in case I wanted any of those things.”
Munro, a former vice president of the Roland Park Civic League, said the neighborhood today is tight-knit despite its size – roughly 1,100 households. There is a tremendous sense of civic engagement, perhaps best exemplified by the Enoch Pratt Free Library branch on Roland Avenue.
“That was a very tumbled-down branch of the library,” Munro said. “The Roland Park Community Foundation raised a ton of money to rehab it. They didn’t take it over. It’s not owned by Roland Park – it’s still a city library. But Roland Park raised millions to rehab it and make it much bigger. It’s maybe even double the size of what it once was.
“Obviously a lot of places just don’t have the resources to raise $2 million to rehab a library. Nevertheless, even in places which do have the money, I think perhaps there might be some reticence to raise a ton of money that in the end, you’re not going to have any control over. I call it local patriotism. There’s a great sense of pride in Roland Park and involvement.”
Munro was swept away by that involvement when he moved to Roland Park in 2004. An Englishman who came to Baltimore to do graduate work in political science at Johns Hopkins nearly 30 years ago, Munro had grown tired of his Charles Village row house, and sought a neighborhood with more green space where he and his wife could raise their two children. In Roland Park, he found that and much more – impressive architecture, proximity to shopping and restaurants, nature integrated with community, and safety.
“It’s a great place to raise children,” Munro said. “If you are like I was in your late 30s and you’re looking to upgrade from your rowhouse neighborhood, you’re going to be very pleasantly surprised by how [little traffic there] is here [and] how there are so many nature-related things to do. … It’s a very neighborly-ish neighborhood. That’s hopelessly redundant, but it’s wonderful in that sense. There’s a sense of common cause and pulling together to make Roland Park better.”
This is part of an ongoing series from The Baltimore Sun about the history, culture, and future of Baltimore’s neighborhoods. Have a suggestion for what neighborhood to explore next? Let us know.