Oldtown Mall Historic District
Baltimore City Historic District Ordinance 04-888 - 12/6/2004
The 500 block of Oldtown Mall, a total of 64 buildings, illustrates approximately 200 years of commercial architecture. The district captures three types of commercial architecture: the Rowhouse shop (1780s-1860s), the Victorian store (1860s-1900s), and the twentieth-century store (1900s-1950). In addition, many structures represent numerous physical changes that have occurred over time due to advancement in building technologies, business practices, and architectural styles. As one streetscape ensemble, the 500 block of Old Town Mall presents an eclectic and unique story of commerce and commercial architecture in Baltimore City.
Typical of late-eighteenth- and nineteenth-century neighborhoods, Oldtown was a diverse neighborhood of rich and poor, African-American and White, and immigrant and native Baltimorean. The neighborhood comprised residences, commercial structures, and industrial enterprises. By the 1820s and 1830s, the upper class migrated to higher elevation settling around Monument Square and, subsequently, Mount Vernon Place. These former residences were converted into business establishments and boarding houses. From the 1830s to the 1890s, the area thrived as a middle class neighborhood, welcoming several groups of immigrants. During the twentieth century, the exodus of the middle class continued, making room for the construction of public housing projects and low income apartment buildings that surround Oldtown Mall.
By 1818 this area became a center of commercial activity when the City constructed the Belair Market (just south of the historic district). The market became the hub of four turnpike roads – Falls, Harford, Belair, and Philadelphia roads – which connected farmers to their customers. As early as the 1820s, two- and-a-half-story shops that resembled rowhouses began to line the 500 block of Gay Street, just north of Belair Market. These shops were of the same scale and massing as Baltimore rowhouses. In the 1850s stores of all kinds were present on Gay Street. By 1869, the 500 block of Gay Street was mostly storefronts with first-floor awnings that span the sidewalk. In 1883, businessmen formed the Oldtown Merchants and Manufacturers Association to promote improvements to Oldtown: free omnibus transportation from the Maryland Central Railroad to Gay Street; construction of a sewer line along Front and Low streets to prevent flooding; the widening of Gay and Orleans streets; erection of a new bridge over Gay Street; and improvements to the Belair Market. By the turn of the 20th century, Oldtown Mall area was an important neighborhood main street that also catered to suburban residents along the Philadelphia, Belair, and Harford Road corridors.
In the 20th century, Oldtown’s commercial corridor remained an essential part of the neighborhood’s commerce. Many significant remodeling projects occurred in the first three decades of the 20th century. In 1938, however, a section of the market was demolished to make way for parking. In 1964, the City ended open air vendors along the streets surrounding the Belair Market, and in the early 1970s Oldtown Mall was created by closing Gay Street and building a pedestrian walkway. In the mid 1990s the Belair Market closed altogether.