September 1, 2007
Now a local landmark, Hugh Newell Jacobsen’s 1967 town houses helped patch Baltimore.
Modern just became historic in Baltimore. Bolton Commons, 35 town houses designed by architect Hugh Newell Jacobsen, is a rare International Style outcropping in a city better known for marble-stepped row homes and pre-1900 buildings. This year Bolton Commons not only turns 40, it also becomes one of the first Modern complexes to earn landmark status from Baltimore’s Commission for Historical & Architectural Preservation (Mies van der Rohe’s Highfield House condos have yet to be landmarked).
The story of this development in Baltimore’s Bolton Hill district serves as a snapshot of cities at mid-twentieth century. With the middle class leaving en masse for the suburbs, the area’s grand Victorian homes—which once housed the likes of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald—seemed threatened by urban decay. In an effort to stave off blight, developer Stanley Panitz says, “the city acquired several blocks of land at the edges of the community and leveled them to create a buffer” from the adjoining poor black neighborhood. When the city held a design competition to redevelop the land in 1959, Panitz enlisted the help of Jacobsen, who had recently opened his own practice in D.C. after apprenticing with Philip Johnson.
The young architect’s winning design deftly balanced the public and the private, providing residents with light-filled homes opening onto walled yards with a shared garden beyond. Mansard slate roofs and brick blended seamlessly with the historic homes nearby. “Good architecture is like a well-mannered lady,” Jacobsen says. “It should never show up its neighbors.” He detailed the homes with his own built-ins and lighting, and the project—which earned him the 1969 National Honor Award from the American Institute of Architects—helped bridge not just the physical gap between the neighborhoods, but also the psychological one.
Bolton Commons’ first seven homes were completed in 1967. Panitz and his family occupied two, which were customized by Jacobsen as one unit, and the remainder sold quickly for about $30,000 each, allowing the developer to move forward with the project. In spite of the 1968 riots after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, the rest of the units eventually sold to a diverse mix of residents, and some of the original homeowners continue to live there today. Architect Majid Jelveh and designer Marybeth Shaw, principals of Shaw-Jelveh Design, who now occupy Panitz’s former home, were instrumental in lobbying for the development’s landmark status. “The fact that this community is still thriving after all these years really is a testament to the power of thoughtful Modern design,” Shaw says.
This month the residents celebrate by bringing Jacobsen and Panitz back for a lecture and open-house tour. “Every time I’m anywhere near Baltimore, I drive by,” Jacobsen admits. “You can always tell that you’ve done a good job when people take such good care of the buildings.”