Row houses are the characteristic housing type of Maryland’s largest city, Baltimore. The row house was adapted to a wide variety of socioeconomic circumstances and popular architectural modes by builders and architects throughout Baltimore’s history. This group of five modest row houses at 516-524 South Dallas Street was built circa 1892 as improved rental housing for African American or Polish immigrant workers. Known as Douglass Place, these narrow, two-bay houses were constructed as an investment property by prominent abolitionist and activist Frederick Douglass. Built on a narrow alley already developed with older buildings, Douglass Place recalls the use of alleys for worker housing in Baltimore before new construction of this type was outlawed in the early years of the twentieth century. The five row houses of Douglass Place are surviving examples of simple but well-built worker housing in the established and densely developed mixed-use neighborhood of Fell’s Point.
Each house is two stories high and two bays wide on a raised basement, with a small one-story ell at the rear. While small, the houses were up-to-date with vernacular Italianate features such as sheet metal cornices with brackets and segmental arches door and window openings. In typical Baltimore fashion, the houses front directly on the sidewalk with a brick stoop leading to the doorway. More expensive row houses might have marble stoops or foundations; here the lower courses of brick are painted white to simulate masonry. On its stoop, No. 522 has the remnants of Formstone sheathing, the mid-twentieth-century faux masonry ubiquitous in Baltimore. Its Formstone facade has been recently removed to expose its original common brick wall surface that matches the other four houses in the row. The first-floor plan of these houses contains three rooms, including the kitchen in the rear ell. A winder stair provides access into the rear of two second-floor rooms.
Although Douglass lived at his Cedar Hill estate in Washington, D.C., during this period, he had a longstanding connection to the Fell’s Point neighborhood of Baltimore, having lived here when he was enslaved starting in the mid-1820s. During this period he secretly learned to read and attended the Dallas Street Station Methodist Episcopal Church, which stood on the site of Douglass Place. Before his escape from slavery in 1838, he was returned to fieldhand work on the Eastern Shore, where he taught other enslaved persons to read. Douglass built the five houses on South Dallas Street to provide good quality rental housing for Black or immigrant workers, but the economic downturn of 1893 impacted the success of his venture. After his death in 1895, Douglass’s heirs sold the row to a group of local investors.
Hayward, Mary Ellen, and Charles Belfoure. The Baltimore Rowhouse. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2001.