Home | Whats New | Site Index | Search

Barre Circle Historic District

City of Baltimore, Independent Cities, MD

The Barre Circle Historic District is was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983. Portions of the content of this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [‡]

The Barre Circle Historic District is significant for its architecture and for its association with the industrial development of Baltimore City. Its cohesive streetscapes of modest, unadorned brick rowhouses reflect the architectural response to Baltimore's rapid industrial expansion in the mid-19th century, and typify urban worker's housing of the period. In the context of Baltimore's mid-19th century neighborhoods, Barre Circle is unusual in the consistently unpretentious character of its architecture, which reflects the historic social homogeneity of the area; whereas other rowhouse neighborhoods housed a mixture of white- and blue-collar workers, the managerial class and their more elaborate dwellings were, and are, conspicuously absent from Barre Circle.

The Barre Circle Historic District evolved as a homogeneous architectural and social enclave in direct response to adjacent industrial expansion of the 1840s-1850s. A primarily working class neighborhood, it lacked both the mixture of economic groups and the architectural variety often found in the neighboring expansion areas of Ridgely's Delight and Poppleton.

Whereas in these later areas draftsmen and workers lived on the smaller streets, alleys and block interiors, white collar workers and managers lived on the large streets. The latter group was noticeably absent in Barre Circle. The primary distinction was between craftsmen who occupied the houses on main streets and the semi-skilled laborers and free blacks who lived on the smaller streets and alleys. The architectural homogeneity can be explained in part by the area's rapid development within limited time frames and the lack of evolutionary growth found in other neighborhoods.

The Thomas Poppleton map of 1823 shows the area to be undeveloped land, much of which was still contained in the Judge McHenry estate. Within seven years of the map's publication, James McHenry was selling parcels of the McHenry estate to developers.

Most of the housing north of McHenry Street was built prior to 1852 and much of Barre Circle, with the exception of Scott Street (south of McHenry), north of Ramsey Street and the southern part of Barre Street was built up before the Civil War.

Architecturally, Barre Circle is a cohesive collection of intact, brick rowhouses, highly consistent and uniform within each block and extremely modest in scale and decoration, two characteristics which further strengthen the unity of the area and set off architecturally from other neighborhoods. Rows of Barre Circle houses were generally built together, perhaps by carpenter entrepreneurs, as it is not uncommon to have six to twelve nearly identical units within a block.

Today [1982] approximately three-quarters of Barre Circle is comprised of a homesteading project undertaken by Baltimore City's Department of Housing and Community Development. Well over 100 structures, the heart of the District, have been offered for $1 each to prospective owners. Barre Circle is one of the largest and most concentrated homesteading projects currently underway.

Land division in Barre Circle followed the traditional pattern of partitioning larger estates into smaller parcels and finally into individual lots, often through the leasing process and the use of annual ground rents averaging $40. Barre Circle was originally part of the estate known as Ridgely's Delight.

In 1799, Dr. James McHenry, George Washington's Secretary of War (for whom Fort McHenry was named), purchased a large tract of land from the Ridgely family. At his death, Dr. McHenry's rural estate was divided chiefly between his daughter, Anna McHenry Boyd, and his nephew, Ramsey McHenry. James Howard McHenry was responsible for the sale of much of the land in Barre Circle. He sold a northern portion to Joshua and Charles Barney and Stephen Thompson as early as 1830 and a southern portion to William Hamilton. While the Barneys and Thompson partitioned their land amongst themselves, Hamilton's land remained in his estate and was not subleased until as late as 1869.

In a more complex and later agreement, James McHenry transferred the two blocks fronting on the east side of Scott Street south of McHenry Street to Maria Cole with the provision that houses be built on the land. Maria transferred this obligation to Charles Cole, who in turn transferred it to Augustus Conrades. Conrades fulfilled the obligation dating the development of Scott Street, below McHenry, in 1873-1874 and then received a lease from James McHenry. Conrades in turn leased the fourteen houses and lots to various individuals.

The land purchased by the Barneys and Thompson lay north of McHenry Street. Their early purchase from McHenry and subsequent partitioning helped account for its development prior to 1851. For example, William Burns bought the parcel of land including 113-131 Scott Street (north of Pratt) between 1847 and 1848 and then leased lots to various individuals. Shortly thereafter, house were built at 113 and 115, probably the first on the block.

The division of larger parcels of land for development purposes coincided with the expansion of the city to the west, and with a change in the nature of the area. Between 1837 and 1869 Baltimore felt the force of the industrial revolution. It changed from a city with agricultural and seafaring interests, to a place involved with railway, iron, and other heavy industrial interests. In these 23 years, Baltimore doubled its population, its workforce, and the mileage of its streets. House completions in the 1830s had stood at about 400 a year. By 1851 they had reached 2000 annually. Much of Barre Circle, particularly north of McHenry Street, was part of this phenomenon. The area immediately west of Barre Circle developed as one of Baltimore's earliest industrial centers. The B&O Railroad established the Mount Clare station and yards in 1930 at Poppleton and Pratt Streets. Circa 1840, Ross Winans started his locomotive works just east of the railroad yards at Scott and Pratt Streets. In 1852, the Hayward & Bartlett Foundry relocated in a portion of the Winans Factory.

By 1852 the Mount Clare shops employed one thousand workers, while Winan's factory and Hayward & Bartlett employed three hundred and fifty men each. In addition to these major concerns, the surrounding neighborhood contained a wide range of smaller industries which supplied piecework for the larger operations.

As a direct result of the development of the industry, housing began to be constructed to the north and east of the factories. By 1850 most of the houses on Lombard Street between Parkin and Fremont Streets had been built. They are generally among the earliest houses standing in Barre Circle. By 1852 much of the block bounded by West Pratt, Scott, McHenry, and Fremont Streets had been built. Also built were a significant number of houses along the south side of McHenry Street as well as some structures on West Barre Street (then Sterrett) between McHenry and Ramsey Streets. Sterrett (West Barre) Street from McHenry to Ramsey was opened by the City in 1861, although some houses were already there.

By the time of the Civil War, settlement in Barre Circle was virtually complete, with the exception of Scott Street between McHenry and Ramsey Street, which was still owned by the McHenry family and not yet subdivided. Also unsettled were the northern side of Ramsey (houses built between 1895-1903) and the southwestern end of West Barre (completed around 1900). However, the next attempt at massive housing was not the completion of the blocks on Scott Street or the southern end of West Barre, but rather the ambitious scheme by locomotive magnate Winans to build over one hundred three-story houses on Parkin, between Ramsey and Pratt, as model housing for workers. The houses, erected around 1867, had less than a fifteen year lifespan before demolition for expansion of the Hayward & Bartlett foundry occurred. Had they succeeded as a housing project, Hayward & Bartlett's expansion may have been east-ward. Hence, the area east of Scott Street remained as working class housing, and blocks on Scott Street south of McHenry were completed about this time. The company's building on the west side of Scott Street was sympathetic in scale and material to its residential neighbors.

From the beginning Barre Circle was a working class neighborhood occupied by craftsmen and industrial workers. The neighborhood's residents included carpenters, sailors, bakers, hucksters, machinists, shoemakers, railroad workers, and pattern makers, in addition to the neighborhood grocers and tavern keepers. Unlike the Poppleton area, located to the north of Lombard Street, Barre Circle was relatively devoid of white collar and upper class residents.

The vast majority of Barre Circle inhabitants had their family origins in the British Isles or Germany. St. Peter's Church on Hollins Street to the north, one of the few Roman Catholic churches in Baltimore at the time, undoubtedly attracted a large number of Irish Catholic immigrants to the area as well.

By the end of the Civil War, a public school was situated at the corner of Fremont and Lemmon. Heil's Bakery and McCullough's coal and lumber yard occupied Pratt west of Fremont, and Lewis Wise's tavern occupied the northeast corner of Scott and McHenry. The Irish and German segments still made up the largest portion of the neighborhood's population. The Civil War had stimulated production in the Mount Clare shops and at Hayward & Bartlett, who, in turn, in 1863, had taken over Winan's locomotive works. The proportion of industrial workers and common laborers in the neighborhood increased, although Barre Circle was still the home of cabinet makers, carpenters, clocksmiths, and even a few piano makers who may have worked at the Newman Brother and Son Piano Forte Factory at Lombard and Arlington Streets.

Two furniture factories existed within the Barre Circle Area, as did two wagon factories. G. W. Landon Furniture Factory, S. C. Ridgeway Safe Manufacturer, and S. T. Richardson Sash, Door and Blind Manufacturer were located between Pratt and Dover Streets west of Fremont Avenue. N. A. Pfeifers Furniture Factory appears on Ramsey Street at the southeast end of Barre Street on the 1869 Sachse map.

Throughout many parts of Baltimore at this time, it was common for the relatively higher income people to live on the wider, more important streets, while relatively poorer people and free blacks often lived in smaller houses on the alleys and smaller streets on the inside of the blocks. Barre Circle was no exception. On Lombard Street were homes and offices of most of the small number of white collar workers and many craftsmen, while Pratt had a large proportion of skilled craftsmen. Conversely, streets like Ramsey, Dover, and Otterbein (with some exceptions) were the home of laborers and industrial workers. Dover Street residents were almost all black, as was a section of Otterbein. Common laborers represented a large group of the work force, and workers often lived together in single housing units in Barre Circle.

By the turn of the century, the smaller industries began to disappear. Housing was erected at the southwestern end of Barre Street and on northern Ramsey Street. Throughout the 20th century little physical change occurred. Industry began a slow decline, led by the railroads. While Hayward & Bartlett, which became the Koppers Company, survived, it finally left the neighborhood in 1976. The neighborhood itself began to decline in the 1960s. Demolition occurred in the early 1970s along the west side of Fremont for a proposed road, now the Harbor City Boulevard. Other houses acquired by the city stood vacant.

In 1973, by resolution of the City Board of Estimates, an urban homesteading project was created in the area, consisting of approximately 128 structures. Barre Circle was the common name given to the newly-isolated area by the surrounding community. Origins of the homesteading concept in the United States date to the Federal Homestead and Extension Law of 1862 under which millions of acres of land were given to settlers of the west. United States citizens, after paying a nominal fee, could obtain up to 160 acres of public land. After cultivating it for five years or more, they received title. Today the concept of awarding property under the condition that it be improved and occupied within a given period of time has been revived in order to reintroduce into the housing stock vacant and deteriorated structures.

Baltimore was one of the first cities in the United States to include homesteading of its housing stock, and is considered the most successful. Baltimore's program, which includes large, concentrated areas of vacant houses, primarily received its stock through city tax foreclosure and was initially backed by an existing city-funded loan program. Under the original homesteading agreement, homeowners agreed to renovate the properties and live in them for at least 18 months after the completion of the renovation. In Baltimore, three concentrated homestead areas—Stirling Street, Otterbein, and Barre Circle—were established, in addition to scattered site properties. Barre Circle represents a unique District, delineated from other neighborhoods by its architectural unity, cohesive site arrangement, and working class heritage. This uniqueness is today reinforced by its development as a concentrated urban homesteading area, maintaining both its historical and contemporary identities with the new name of Barre Circle.

‡ Ms. Kathleen Gold, Chairman, Barre Circle Historic Committee, Barre Circle Historic District, Baltimore, MD, nomination document, 1982, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.

Street Names
Barre Street West • Hayes Street • Lemmon Street • Lombard Street West • Martin Luther King Jr Boulevard South • McHenry Street • Otterbein Street • Pratt Street West • Ramsay Street • Ryan Street • Scott Street