A History of Govanstowne
Written by Eric Holcomb, Baltimore City Planning Department, 2005
Twenty neighborhoods in north Baltimore have aligned themselves with the York Road corridor. These neighborhoods are extremely diverse in building type and demographic make-up; their diversity is a product of four centuries. Nevertheless, for the first 150 years, these neighborhoods shared the same history.
North Baltimore is a product of the York Road; consequently, the history of York Road begins the history of development in this area. The York Road is almost as old as York, Pennsylvania itself. Shortly after 1741, when York was first established as a town, a conference of Baltimore and York tradesmen and merchants met to establish a road between the two young communities. By the mid 1750s, back-country farmers routinely used the York Road to bring grain and other agricultural goods to Baltimore. As the City demands for agricultural products increased, the development of farmland in Baltimore County increased. Consequently, in 1787 Baltimore County, through State enabling legislation, created the Baltimore County-operated York turnpike. By 1805 the county sold the turnpike to private investors; in turn, the Baltimore and York Turnpike Company remained in private hands until the early 1900s. York Road opened up the rural areas of north Baltimore to development.
Development in this area oriented itself to the York Road. The first cross-road village, Govans, was established by 1783. The village was named after its first known resident, William Govans who in the 1750s moved to the area. By the early nineteenth century, Govans village was home to a tollgate located near Rossiter Avenue, Susan Miller's Govans' Town Tavern, and John Wooden's inn and race course.
In the 1840s Govans developed into a thriving village. In 1841 Govans hosted the first livestock show of the Baltimore County Agricultural Association. Shops opened along the York Road, catering to the surrounding gentlemen estates and truck farms. In 1844 Govans was connected to Baltimore by daily omnibus service, and ten years later the village had daily mail service. Omnibuses conveniently stopped near the prevailing inns and taverns: Cold Spring Tavern, south of Govans at Oakland and York; the Star Tavern in Govans; and Robert Ramsey's Hotel in Govans. Churches were also established: the Govans Presbyterian Church was constructed in 1845; St. Patrick's R.C. Church built an orphanage for Irish children in 1847; St. Mary's R.C. Church was constructed in 1849; and the Govans Methodist Episcopal Church was constructed in 1849-50.
For the first half of the 19th century, the larger Govans area was a farm community made up mostly of gentlemen estates and small truck farms. Many prominent city residents bought country estates in the area. The 1857 Taylor map of Baltimore County printed several images of the estates within the greater Govans area. These estates were gentlemen farms and were the summer homes of Baltimore's elite. These were hobby farms, architectural statements, and carefully designed landscapes.
The 1870s saw rapid development spawned by innovations in transportation. In 1874 the Horse Car Railway connected Govans to Baltimore and Towson. York Road became a mixed-use street with commercial, residential, and agricultural-oriented uses. Just a block or two from the road, Suburban style houses were built. In the 1877 G.M. Hopkins' atlas, Govans residents included carpenters, florists, wholesale produce dealers, inn keepers, teachers, farmers, and one landscape gardener. By 1881, Greater Govans had a population of just over 1200.
This thriving village became a node for horse and buggy businesses. Five blacksmith shops; two carriage shops; two livery stables hay; and a grain and feed shop were active in the 1860s through the 1880s. Other businesses included several community-oriented grocery stores, butchers, doctors, carpenters, shoemakers, tailors, and other craftsmen serving domestic needs.
Business began to expand in scale and diversity as the horse-car railway was electrified. By the 1920s, Govans was a thriving mainstreet that catered to the newly built suburban neighborhoods. Drug stores, restaurants, hardware stores, clothing stores, movie theaters, house-ware stores, and banks were established along the York Road corridor. Automobile dealers replaced livery stables and carriage shops, gas stations replaced grain and feed stores, and automotive repair garages replaced blacksmiths.
York Road was the center of the Greater Govans community that was made up of the surrounding suburban developments. Churches increased in number as well as expanded their activities. Movie theaters were constructed (the Senator being a rare survivor), and taverns continued to line the corridor. In 1948 the Hochschild, Kohn Belvedere and Hess Shoes buildings were built. The Hochschild, Kohn & Co. established in 1897 was a major downtown department store. In 1946 they started building a branch store in Govans. Completed in 1948, the store became an anchor of the neighborhood. In addition, Hess Shoes also opened in 1948, making Govans a shopping destination. By the mid-1950s, the shopping core of Govans, centering on York and Belvedere roads, also included an A & P grocery store, a Steiff Silver outlet, Read's Drug store, a carpet store, a jeweler, the Senator Theater (opened 1939), banks, several restaurants, service stations, cleaners, barbers, shoe repair shops, and seven other specialty shoe and clothing stores. Govans shopping district catered to the newly developed suburban neighborhoods within the area.
The conglomeration of new suburban developments grew into neighborhoods. Most oriented themselves around the York Road corridor. These new neighborhoods, most of which are twentieth-century creations, provided the area with a great diversity of housing types and styles, which in turn supports a diverse population.
During the 1890s, when the streetcar was electrified, residential housing began to cater to suburbanites. Houses in the current, eclectic style were built within a short walking distance from York Road. Foursquares, Queen-Anne Cottages, and Colonial revival farmhouses were built on spacious lots. In addition, smaller gabled-end houses were built to house the working class. Amongst theses houses, many duplexes were built.Most rowhouses found in the neighborhood were built between the 1920s and 1940s. These residential developments were constructed several houses at a time. They were built as part of the Govans community. Pen Lucy and Wilson Park are two neighborhoods that were built with smaller gabled-end housing. Many of these houses were decorated with shiplap siding, barge-board, finials, decorative scroll-sawn brackets, cedar-shake shingles and porchfronts. These neighborhoods, being closer to the City, were first considered part of the Waverly area; however, by the 1920s they formed their own identity. Wilson Park, considered one of Baltimore's first African-American suburbs, was developed by Harry Wilson, an African American, who began to build houses as early as 1917.
Radnor Winston was developed between the 1890s and the 1940s. More than two dozen houses had been built in Radnor Winston by 1900. These houses were most likely built one at a time with the homeowner overseeing the construction, or the houses were constructed by small-time builders/carpenters. By the 1910s larger development enterprises were constructing houses in the neighborhood. In the 1920s over fifty percent of the houses were built as bungalows and 18 percent were built as foursquares. By WWII, most of the neighborhood was built.
Homeland and Guilford are considered some of Baltimore's finest planned suburban neighborhoods with exquisite trend-setting architecture. These neighborhoods were planned by the Roland Park Company and under the design guidance of the Olmsted Brothers. The houses were designed by the leading Baltimore architects who were nationally known and respected.
Cedarcroft and Lake Evesham have also recently been listed on the National Register of Historic Places.