A Look into Towson’s Ever-Present Past
Looking at old photographs of Towson, one could be forgiven for thinking they were looking at a completely different town. The once sprawling farmland surrounding Towson Circle is now home to vast commercial developments. Formerly sleepy intersections are presently jammed with traffic. Even the old county courthouse, the colossal stone edifice that once dominated the surrounding landscape, today looks quaint surrounded by the glass and steel behemoths that now define the Towson skyline.
The current character of the county seat is a far cry from the sleepy Baltimore whistle-stop it was a little more than a century ago. However, just south of the commercial sprawl that surrounds Towson University is a neighborhood that preserves both the quiet nature of the old town and gives some clues about how modern Towson came to be.
The bucolic streets and stately Tudor houses of the Stoneleigh neighborhood are some of the last remnants of Towson’s whistle-stop past and evidence of its current bustling character. Its origins stretch back to the mid-19th century when Towsontowne was more often noted for its tavern than for any surrounding community.
In the early 1850s, Robert Brown purchased 230 acres of county farmland along York Road, about 5 miles north of what was then the city line. Robert, whose father founded the Maryland Medical School, promptly began construction on what was to become known as Stoneleigh House: a 22-room country estate that would house the Brown family and entertain Baltimore’s socialites for the next 90 years. The original house was designed by a Viennese architect in a classical Victorian style and featured imported brick, a tin roof, 13-foot ceilings, formal gardens, tenant houses and a man-made lake to provide ice in the winter.
The name of the estate is shrouded in some mystery. Local legend holds that the name is compounded from the stony quality of the area’s soil and the fact that a prominent member of the Brown family married into the local Leigh family around the same time as the estate’s purchase and construction. However, it’s also possible that the Browns bestowed the name of one of their favorite vacation destinations on their new property: the town of Stoneleigh in Warwickshire, England, whose bucolic nature may have served as inspiration for much of the design of the Brown estate and even the current neighborhood.
While the Browns happily spent the rest of the 19th century hosting gracious parties and taking in the natural beauty of the estate, hints of the changes to come started to appear soon after the manor’s completion. In the early 1860s, rail lines were laid along York Road for horse-drawn cars to ferry people from Towson into downtown Baltimore. As the region’s transportation networks grew in size and efficiency, the gap between quiet country towns like Towson and the industrial hub of Baltimore slowly closed. By 1919, the city boundary crept north to Walker Avenue, almost buffeting the land surround Stoneleigh House. Buckling under the increasing costs of maintaining such a large, aging estate and the ever-louder demands of local developers to cede the property to the expectations of modernity, the heirs of Robert Brown sold 110 acres of their original plot to the newly founded Stoneleigh Corporation in 1922.
The Browns accepted a development proposal put forward by a group led by Irvin Butler, a developer who played a major role in planning the Guilford and Roland Park neighborhoods of Baltimore city. In a style similar to these successful developments, the developers of the Stoneleigh project deliberately took into account the natural contours of the land as well as the stately elm, poplar and gum trees that dotted the old estate. According to one contemporary account, the “landscape and building architects who planned the Guilford (neighborhood) have been put in charge…it has been necessary to divert in some instances roadways in order that some giant poplar, an old maple or gum tree might not be sacrificed.” This initial care paid to the local environment and 19th-century landscaping efforts preserved much of the original character of the estate and is evident today as many of these old trees, some planted by Robert Brown himself, still shade the houses and residents of Stoneleigh.
This mindfulness carried over into the construction of streets and original houses. Many of the new winding streets took on the names of other English towns similar to Stoneleigh such as Bristol, Sheffield and Oxford. A majority of the houses were constructed in the Tudor style, their pitched roofs and dark brick giving the new neighborhood an old world, medieval flavor. According to a real estate brochure from the period, the initial price for a house in this “ideal suburban development” was $9,950 with a $1,500 down payment and a $95 mortgage.
The construction of family homes and birth of the Stoneleigh community gave way to additional neighborhood developments, the most notable being the community pool. The pool, which sits on the Brown family’s old ice reserve pond, has been variously described as “the heart of the community” and “the community’s greatest asset.” After opening in 1925, the pool was quickly followed by the community school, which opened its doors for the first time in 1929.
By all measures, the Stoneleigh development was a shining example of modern urban growth and a clear symbol of the area’s future. Yet through all this, some of the area’s traditional trappings remained. As the developers of the neighborhood envisioned, their preservation of the area’s Victorian landscape and continued cultivation of it through the hard times of the Great Depression preserved much of the quiet, bucolic atmosphere natural to the original estate. More interestingly, still sitting among the urban expansion was the original manor house that had bestowed its name on the young community now surrounding it. In the 1950s, the Stoneleigh House remained in the private hands of the Brown family and was home to Mary Leigh Brown, described as Stoneleigh’s “resident dowager.”
In 1952, Mary Leigh died at the age of 85, leaving the house in the hands of her surviving family who opened it to the public. For a time, the house became a kind of cabinet of curiosities for the Victorian age as many of its rooms and furnishings had not been altered since the 1870s. While its collection of stuffed animal heads, painted glass windows and vintage upholstery caused quite a stir among both local and national enthusiasts, its fate was to be that of so many sister estates that once dotted the Baltimore Countryside. In 1955, the remainder of the original Stoneleigh estate was subdivided into 77 new housing plots and the old Victorian manor, representative of much of old Towson’s way of life, made way for the new.
Or so it would seem. Walking through Stoneleigh today, one gets the sense that much of old Towsontowne’s spirit is present in the now historic neighborhood. The shady poplars and oaks still loom over the residents of Towson’s first modern development, much as they would have over members of the Brown family and their dining party during the Victorian age. The assortment of quaint street names and cozy Tudor homes feels a world away from the steel high-rises of downtown Towson.
It’s a testament to both the area’s past and the enduring commitment of Stoneleigh’s residents to preserving the area’s traditional character. In 2003, after years of local petitioning, the federal government listed Stoneleigh on the National Register of Historic Places, ensuring that the neighborhood will remain a delightful reminder of Towson’s quiet past and the earliest example of its now urban character. As Towson continues to grow, the historic neighborhood remains a humble connection to a time when Towson was a quiet stop on the road to another destination, rather than the destination itself.