HISTORICAL SOCIETY & MUSEUM, Inc.
Old Dundalk's neighborhood history is intertwined with the founding of the town. Beginning in the late 19th century, Dundalk was transformed from farm fields into an innovative planned company town by the suburbanization of industry and housing, the advent of World War I, and later, the widespread adoption of the automobile. Irish immigrant Henry McShane started an iron foundry among the fields and houses just east of Baltimore City in 1854. A wharf along the Patapsco River and a railroad converged near the location of the foundry, and Henry’s son William named the new freight station Dundalk in honor of his father’s hometown in Ireland.
In 1917, the Bethlehem Steel Co. took over the nearby Sparrows Point steel plant. To provide needed housing for new workers in this rural area, the Steel Company created the Dundalk Company. Appointed president of the Dundalk Company was E.H. Bouton, a local architect who was also president of the Roland Park company in Baltimore City. The company began by purchasing around 1,000 acres of land on either side of the railroad tracks near Dundalk Avenue and the freight station.
Before the Dundalk Company could really get started constructing houses, the country entered World War I. Ship-building was in high demand. Through the United States Shipping Board Emergency Fleet Corporation, the federal government took over the role of the Dundalk Company on June 12, 1918, creating the Liberty Housing Company.
Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., the son of the famous landscape architect known for designing New York’s Central Park, was placed in charge of the newly-formed Town Planning Division of the U.S. Housing Corporation in 1918. This federal agency supervised the planning and design of several towns, including Dundalk, needed to house workers producing ships and other supplies for the World War I effort.
Old Dundalk’s design followed then-popular Garden City planning principles, using curvilinear streets, mixed housing densities, and a planned commercial and civic center. Between 1918-19, 815 stucco houses with slate roofs were built. A self-contained town center followed, featuring shops, churches, a school and other amenities. This center evolved to include a movie theater, library, post office, police station and fire station. The government purchased street cars, later known as the “Red Rockets,” to get residents to work. Also typical of the Garden City ideal, open space was incorporated into the plan with park areas reserved adjacent to the shopping district and school.
The mixed-use town center exists today and has functioned for decades as it was originally designed, though recent economic and retail trends pose a significant challenge. It is the second oldest shopping center in the State of Maryland and among the first in America.
Old Dundalk is the only residential project following Olmsted’s wartime model in Maryland and one of only 36 in the United States. Housing lots were moderately sized, homes were diverse in style and price range, and laid out to embrace and support the pedestrian-friendly commercial and civic center from all sides. At its heart was Dundalk Avenue, a central transportation corridor. Dundalk became a National Register Historic District in 1983. It resulted from a historic town planning movement, and it embodies today’s Smart Growth principles.
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