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  • Baltimore's Alley Houses: Homes for Working People since the 1780s
  • Laura B. Driemeyer (bio)
Mary Ellen Hayward Baltimore's Alley Houses: Homes for Working People since the 1780s Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008. 328 pages. 98 halftone illustrations, 6 line drawings. ISBN 978-0-8018-8834-2, $45.00 HB

The rowhouse likely comes to mind when one thinks about the nineteenth-century American urban residential landscape, especially in the mid-Atlantic and New England regions. The versatility of this housing form led to its widespread construction in a range of scales and styles suitable for a variety of economic classes, from laborers to the elite. Remarkably, this common building type, especially the humble variants constructed for working people, remains a relatively understudied component of the urban vernacular landscape. Baltimore's Alley Houses: Homes for Working People since the 1780s helps rectify this lacuna. Hayward's case study analyzes the prevalent alley house, the smallest scale of row housing in Baltimore, Maryland, "to shed light on the subject of planned housing for the poor and working classes by closely investigating the housing patterns and urban growth of one of America's most important early nineteenth-century cities" (8). This focus on small-scale row housing, constructed on narrow, mid-block alleys and built for and occupied by large numbers of the city's working people, distinguishes this volume as a valuable addition to the small but growing body of case studies of urban vernacular residential forms. The book has garnered a number of awards, including the Vernacular Architecture Forum's 2009 Abbott Lowell Cummings Prize and a 2009 Heritage Book Award given by the Maryland Historic Trust.

Baltimore's Alley Houses, a well-illustrated architectural and social history, combines fieldwork and extensive documentary research in the best tradition of vernacular architecture studies to analyze construction and residency patterns of alley houses built in the city from the late eighteenth century to about 1909, when Baltimore's new building code banned construction of new tenements and apartments on streets measuring less than forty feet in width as part of local housing reform efforts. While the rowhouse is not unique to Baltimore, as the author notes in the introduction, what distinguishes the city's row housing is the sheer quantity of examples constructed throughout the nineteenth century and the diversity of scale. Of particular significance is the large number of alley houses or small row-houses still extant. Smaller numbers of alley houses survive and were constructed in more discrete time periods in other mid-Atlantic cities: in Philadelphia alley house construction largely disappeared after the Civil War, and in Washington, DC, the form was popularized predominantly only after the Civil War (9).

This study of Baltimore's alley houses "derives from a preservation imperative" (ix) in response to the city housing commissioner's mid-1990s threat to demolish them wholesale as a means of solving the vacant housing crisis. In response to this threat, "several hundred blocks of houses" were "recorded, documented, photographed, and put on file" by local preservationists over a five-year period (ix). Hayward's book is the published end product of the analysis of the results of that heroic endeavor. That fieldwork established a baseline definition of alley houses based on location, scale, and degree of ornament. A hierarchy of rowhousing by location exists within each city block, based on street widths and their relationship to the block. Whereas developers constructed the widest three-story, three-bay rowhouses on the primary streets and slightly narrower ones on mid-block streets, on alley streets they constructed two-story, two-bay rowhouses. Alley houses front on mid-block alleys or lanes measuring less than thirty feet. Their decorative detailing tends to be a simplified or economical version of the current style at the time of their construction. The interior plan is typically two rooms deep, sometimes with a rear kitchen addition or service ell.

Baltimore's Alley Houses includes an introduction, six chapters, and an epilogue. The volume features a generous use of images including plans and elevations; historic and recent photographs; historic prints and drawings; and details from historic maps, atlases, and bird...


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