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Lawyers Hill Historic District

Elkridge, Howard County, MD

The Lawyers Hill Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1992. Portions of the content of this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [‡]

The Lawyers Hill Historic District is significant for its diverse collection of Victorian-era architecture and for its role as a 19th century summer community and early commuter suburb for prominent Baltimoreans. Although the area historically known as Lawyers Hill was divided into two sections by I-95 in the 1960s, there have been virtually no other adverse impacts on either section and the area as a whole has retained its historic character. The architecture on the Hill reflects the dramatic series of social and economic changes occurring in the nation between 1730, the earliest of the properties which became Lawyers Hill, and 1941. But the Hill's unique character is based on its concentration of 19th century domestic dwellings located in the center of the community along Lawyers Hill and Old Lawyers Hill roads. The structures represent a range of 19th century residential architectural styles. While the buildings vary in style, they are closely related in setting, scale and materials. Lawyers Hill is also significant for its landscape architecture and community planning. Houses were built to fit the contours of the hillside and blend with the natural landscape. Most of the buildings are set back at least one hundred yards from the narrow and winding roads, evoking the spirit of the pre-auto era. The natural and man-made landscape has been allowed to mature, shrouding the houses in foliage and creating thick canopies over the roads. With the opening of the Thomas Viaduct in 1836, the Patapsco Valley south of the river was easily accessible to Baltimoreans. Many of the first residents were respected lawyers and doctors active in many of the professional and cultural organizations still vital in the State today. During the 1840s, as railroad service improved, Lawyers Hill residents began commuting to Baltimore an a daily and weekly basis, establishing the community as the state's first railroad commuter suburb.

The area around Lawyers Hill has changed dramatically during the last two decades as dense apartment and townhouse developments have grown up around it. The U.S. Route 1 (Washington-Baltimore Boulevard) corridor below the Hill has grown steadily since the north-south truck route was created more than fifty years ago. But unlike other 19th century summer communities-turned suburbs Lawyers Hill has not been lost among modem developments. Its rural roots are still apparent in the existing landscape. The Lawyers Hill Historic District incorporates two 17th century land grants: Moore's Morning Choice, a 1,395 acre parcel granted to Caleb Dorsey in 1695 and Hockley, the first land grant what is now Howard County, from 1670. The Dorseys were early iron magnates who made their fortune exploiting the natural resources of the valley. The family empire began with small forge on the Rockburn Branch. Within the next century it had evolved into the vast Avalon Ironworks which straddled the river above the community of Elkridge. The Dorsey plantation, known as Belmont, was connected to the success of Elkridge and played a key role in the economy of the region. In addition to the network of iron furnaces and forges along the river were smaller saw and flour mills along Rockburn Branch which helped stimulate the area's economy. During the mid-19th century, the Dorsey's began experiencing economic troubles, probably related to the decline of the port and the iron trade. Family members began to sell off pieces of property to city dwellers seeking a healthy country environment free from the disease and humidity of urban summers. At the same time members of the Ellicott family, who ran mills along the Patapsco River between Elkridge and Ellicott City sold Hockley to George Washington Dobbin, the first lawyer to build a house on Lawyers Hill.

In contrast to the colonial plantation culture the new Lawyers Hill residents established compact country estates centered around a "romantic cottage" and a few dependencies, (usually a small barn and a tenant house) and vegetable and flower gardens. Although lots at 10 to 20 acres were large by today's standards, the area quickly became densely populated for its time. But patterns of settlement more closely resembled those that would develop forty years later in summer communities such as Catonsville and Sudhrock in Baltimore County, with houses facing the road and built in loosely-knit rows. Unlike the later planned suburbs, Lawyers Hill developed organically as each family grew and lots were divided to accommodate the next generation.

Lawyers Hill settlement as a summer community was made possible by the evening of the Thomas Viaduct in 1835. A major engineering feat, the Viaduct is the oldest multiple-arched curved railroad bridge in the world. Baltimoreans, who previously would have had to make the trek to Eldridge by carriage over the poorly-maintained Washington Turnpike, could now reach their destination in 15 minutes aboard the B&O Railroad. Early residents maintained houses in fashionable Baltimore neighborhoods such as Bolton Hill and Mt. Vernon for weekday and winter use. Some families even had third homes on the rivers near Annapolis. While it initially began as a summer retreat, Lawyers Hill evolved quickly into a commuter suburb as residents started taking the train to work on a regular basis. By 1873 there was regular passenger service to Baltimore. Although not formally created as a railroad suburb it became one, predating Baltimore's planned commuter railroad and streetcar suburbs by nearly 40 years. Residents commuted from Relay, a busy junction near the B&O's old Main Line running west and the Washington branch met. As recently as the 1930s residents commuted to Baltimore from Relay. After World War II train service was drastically reduced and was finally eliminated when the hotel and station were demolished in 1950.

The early residents of Lawyers Hill were among the most influential people in Maryland in the mid-19th century. They were the creators and leaders of major professional and cultural institutions of the 19th century and helped shape many organizations still active today. George Washington Dobbin, a prominent Baltimore lawyer was instrumental in founding the Baltimore Bar Association and was one of the first group of five judges named to the newly created Supreme Bench of Baltimore City in 1867. In the early 1840s Dobbin invited a few of his colleagues to join him on the Hill, among them John H. B. Latrobe, legal counsel for B&O, and Thomas Donaldson also a founder of the Baltimore Bar, and counsel for the Pennsylvania Railroad. Latrobe, Donaldson and Dobbin were members of the original boards of the Peabody Institute, the Maryland Art Institute, Johns Hopkins Hospital and the Maryland Historical Society. Latrobe and Dr. James Hall, who lived at Claremont, were active in the Maryland Colonization Association, which advocated the creation of a free black state in Liberia. In addition to lawyers, the community welcomed other professionals and their families, among them doctors and businessmen. Among the business leaders with homes on the Hill were Arthur Davis and James Hemphill who owned Viaduct Manufacturing, originally located at the base of the Viaduct. The company, founded by the Davis family in the 1880s, was one of the earliest producers of telegraph, telephone and electric lift supplies. That company later became Davis and Hemphill, which is still in business in Elkridge making screw machinery.

The Hill was also the site of a variety of important technological developments. In 1843 Samuel Morse, laying his telegraph line from Baltimore to Washington along B&O right-of-way, reached the viaduct and realized the line could not be buried in the bridge structure, so he devised a system of poles to hold wires above ground. This was the first use of telegraph poles. The hilly location also provided a challenge in getting fresh water to the houses. In the 1850s Latrobe imported a new pump system, called the "hydraulic ram," which had been developed in England. In his journal he wrote that he was the first to bring this device into U.S. The ram systems were still in use throughout the Hill as recently as the 1940s. The mechanical remains of this early water pumping technology still exist on the Rockburn Branch and probably in wells located on most of the properties on the Hill.

In addition to helping introduce 19th-century technology, Lawyers Hill residents were also inventors. John H.B. Latrobe designed the Latrobe stove in 1856, which represented a radical departure from the traditional Franklin stove. Unlike its predecessor, the Latrobe stove fit flush into the fireplace and incorporated a device that fed coal automatically for 8 to 12 hours. The stove revolutionized household heating in this country by making it more economical and efficient. George Washington Dobbin was an amateur photographer and astronomer long before the average person owned a camera or telescope. At The Lawn he set up a darkroom and observatory built specifically for his needs with the latest technological features. His observatory's ingenious design featured a removable skylight which still exists in the roof of the third floor of The Lawn.

The houses on Lawyers Hill reflect the status and individuality of their owners, where a rich diversity of architecture represents generations of development. Since it was common for families to subdivide their land for their children, or simply build homes for them on their land, the architectural legacy that remains shows trends in styles as they matured and changed from one generation to the next. The houses could be generally characterized as rural interpretations of hi-style architecture, often built before the styles gained mass popularity, suggesting that architects were involved in their design.

As members of the wealthy class. Lawyers Hill residents could have afforded to hire architects. But some of the residents were talented amateur architects and ingenious builders. John H.B. Latrobe, while not trained in architecture, designed memorials and a few buildings during his life, including the Baltimore cottages at White Sulphur Springs (now The Greenbriar Hotel), and the entrance gate and gate house at Druid Hill park. Robert Carey Long designed the first Fairy Knowe. It is not known who designed the second house on the site. Although no documentation has been unearthed to confirm the design of The Lawn, it may have been built by Dobbin himself. As an educated and highly creative man, he no doubt would have been able to obtain pattern books such as Andrew Jackson Downing's, Cottage Residences, which clearly influenced the design of The Lawn.

Lawyers Hill played an important role in the defense of Baltimore during the Civil War. The viaduct provided the only rail connection with Washington and across the river at Relay was the junction of this north-south route and the east-west route of the B&O Railroad. The Hill, rising above the Viaduct and Relay junction, was a strategic site for the protection of both the bridge and the railroad from sabotage-minded southern sympathizers and from Confederate troops. Under the command of General Benjamin Butler, Union artillery regiments were a permanent, and often unwelcomed presence on the Hill for the entire length of the War. Several installations were established on the Hill including a two-gun battery near the B&O right-of-way, and Cooks Battery, also a two-gun battery, located further up the Lawyers Hill on the Claremont property. The remains of the earthworks from the battery existed until the construction of the I-895 spur in the early 1970s. Just below the Hill on what is now Levering Avenue was a Union army facility called Fort Essex.

The War created a deep rift among families on the Hill: some supported the south and others were staunch northerners. The Dobbins were very active in the Confederate effort, assisting southerners trying to escape to the north and arranging for medical supplies to be transported to the south. Even after the war Dobbin was helping former members of the Confederate army by assisting exiled leaders return to this country.

This tense political environment might have inspired the creation of the central social and cultural institution on the Hill: the Elkridge Assembly Rooms. The residents of Lawyers Hill, like all members of the swelling ranks of the upper class who profited from the growth of new industry, had a great deal of leisure time to enjoy their wealth. Family members, including women, were highly educated, exposed to art and culture, and well-traveled, giving rise to an unusual intellectual atmosphere on the Hill. When parlors became crowded with heated political discussion residents pitched in to erect a "neutral zone" where families could socialize and entertain one another. In 1869 Dobbin donated land to the community and residents purchased stocks to build the Hall. The building was maintained by annual dues and volunteer labor, the way it is still maintained today. Dancing classes, theatrical performances, and tableaux, or variety shows, were held at the Hall on a regular basis. During at least one season in the early 1900s, the Lawyers Hill drama troupe was so successful that the B&O ran special trains to coincide with performance times. Still the heart of community life on the Hill, the Hall keeps the residents linked together and is the site of potluck dinners and the community Fourth of July Celebration, a 75-year old tradition.

The cultured atmosphere was cultivated in the homes as well. Music and language lessons, Shakespeare and Bible readings were part of the daily routine for generations of Lawyers Hill children. Inspired by the pastoral landscape many of the residents expressed their creativity through art, music and poetry. John Latrobe wrote odes to his home, Fairy Knowe, describing evenings there with "many voices were heard from the cottage where laughing and sparkling eyed girls gave joy to the night..." While there are still amateur and professional artists living on the Hill, the legacy of earlier generations of artists survives in the landscape and in the small studios scattered throughout the Hill.

Lawyers Hill also played a role in the development of horse sports in Maryland. In 1878 Murray Hanson, along with friends from Lawyers Hill Road, founded the Elkridge Hunt Club at Belmont, the first organized fox hunting club in Maryland and the second in the country. Now known as the Elkridge-Harford Hunt, it is still active in Jarrettsville. Later generations of family members at Belmont engaged in serious horse breeding. The Bruce family, who lived at Belmont during the early decades of the 20th century, raised champion race horses among them the legendary thoroughbred, Billy Barton, who won the Maryland Hunt Cup in 1926 and placed second in the Grand National Steeplechase the same year.

By the 1930s life began to change on Lawyers Hill. Residents could no longer afford the high maintenance bills on the large, aging houses and at least three were demolished during this decade. Other houses survived periods of neglect and have been restored or are currently undergoing restoration. Even some of the outbuildings have been recycled; the Fairy Knowe barn is now a residence, and the Maycroft tenant house and "honeymoon" cottage, are now used as a house and studio respectively.

The single most disruptive intrusion to the character of the historic district occurred in the mid 1960s when the community was divided by Interstate 95. The highway runs north to south through district between Montgomery Road and the Patapsco River. Fortunately, because properties were spread out no houses were lost. Instead, construction cut through front driveway areas of the houses now on Elibank Drive and the backyards of properties on the west side of Lawyers Hill Road. However, a number of important landscape features were lost; the boxwood gardens of Tutbury, the allee of maples leading to The Cottage, and the formal gardens at Hursley. At least one dozen outbuildings were destroyed, including tenant houses and barns connected with Armagh, Hursley, Wayside, Maycroft and the Lawn. Two significant pre-1860 properties purchased by the State during the construction and abandoned, were destroyed by arson: Wyndhurst (1850), a Gothic Revival cottage which was located north of the Lawn, and Maplewood (1850), a vernacular farmhouse, located on the north side of Lawyers Hill Road near the junction of Montgomery Road, were both lost in the 1970s. The highway now divides the Belmont/Rockburn area from the Lawyers Hill Road area, although the connections—stone gateposts and lines of mature trees leading to the highway off Lawyers Hill Road—are still visible. The historic connection between the two areas was verified by former residents and is evident in maps dating from 1878 to 1960, and aerial photographs which pre-date I-95. The houses on the north side of I-95 are now accessed by the newly created Elibank Road which parallels the highway. The area again felt the impact of highway construction when the Harbor Tunnel Thruway (I-895) connector was built along west side of the hill in the early 1970s. This road cut through four acres of forest at Fairy Knowe. The construction of modern houses in the district is far less intrusive. There are only eight post World War II houses in the Belmont section and six along Lawyers Hill and Old Lawyers Hill roads. Each new house has been well-integrated with no adverse effect on the rural environment or the historic integrity of the district. Lawyers Hill was no longer a sought after residential area following World War II. As in most communities in Maryland, young families, with the encouragement of the Federal government through Federal Housing Administration programs, and popular magazines, looked for smaller, newer houses near shopping centers and schools.

‡ Amy Worden, Historic Sites Surveyor, Howard County Department of Planning and Zoning, Lawyers Hill Historic District, Howard County, MD, nomination document, 1992, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.

Street Names
Belmont Woods Road • Elibank Drive • Lawyers Hill Road • Old Lawyers Hill Road

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