Atlanta has an unfortunate habit of bulldozing historic properties in exchange for shiny new ones, rendering the landscape unrecognizable from one century to the next. It’s remarkable, then, that a series of rowhouses, built 150 years ago in what is now Midtown, are still standing.
Today, the buildings at One Baltimore Place Northwest (located between the Downtown Connector and Emory University Hospital Midtown) have been extensively renovated into offices and apartments. But many elements, including the brick facades, are faithful to their original 1885 design, when they were Baltimore Block, Atlanta’s first apartments and the envy of every socialite in town. Over the years, they were home to mysterious aristocrats and bohemian artists. They crumbled into ruin and were restored multiple times.
In the many decades it’s been standing, Baltimore Block has been home to some of the city’s most interesting characters, whose love for their homes helped to keep them alive today.
Atlanta’s first apartment block
The 14 stately, three-story brick rowhouses were built by a group of Baltimore real estate developers known as the Baltimore Syndicate. “These handsome residences, fitted with every modern improvement, will be sold on extremely liberal terms,” read an Atlanta Constitution advertisement in September 1886.
The rowhouses were Atlanta’s first apartments and a novelty in the South. Rowhouses—tall, narrow, and built side-by-side—were designed for cramped, older cities like Baltimore and New York. But new Southern cities had farmland stretching in every direction. (An Atlanta socialite of the era recalled that horse-drawn carriages never went further than Tenth Street: Once you hit Ponce de Leon, all the roads turned to mud.)
The Baltimore Syndicate built their homes in a trendy part of town, between West Peachtree and Spring Street. The land was purchased from plumbing tycoon Calvin Hunnicutt, whose sprawling mansion at the end of the street was later torn down to build the Downtown Connector. They were exact imitations of Baltimore rowhouses, with brick facades, gas light fixtures, and white marble front stoops. For a dash of authenticity, the developers repaved the street with cobblestones.
They were an instant sensation. Atlanta’s high society—only white high society, it’s important to note, as segregation was strictly enforced at this time—snapped up the homes, and “Baltimore Block” quickly became an Atlanta hotspot. Mrs. Charles D. Tuller, whose sister lived there in the 1880s, later told an interviewer, “It was THE place to see in town. Two things we always planned for visitors were a drive by Baltimore Block and a trip out to Ponce de Leon Springs to play tenpins.”
Decline, then a renaissance
By the early 1900s, high society had moved on. Downtown’s business district was expanding, and wealthy white families were leaving for suburbs like Inman Park. Baltimore Block fell into disrepair, and many of the homes were taken over by squatters. Four houses were torn down for another construction project. Asa Candler, the Coca-Cola magnate, tried to buy the remaining homes to build a hospital, but one owner refused to sell, saving them from demolition.
The future looked grim for Baltimore Block, but in 1932, the derelict rowhouses caught the eye of an interior decorator. Several artists and designers followed, drawn to the classic Victorian architecture. They faithfully restored them and turned the block into a favored locale for Atlanta’s bohemian class—a sort of Greenwich Village of the South.
A 1954 Atlanta Constitution article described the one-room apartment of Kirk and Lee Pattlee, which retained its original pink marble floor and just enough room for a baby grand piano. They also had a green parakeet, Maude—“bought to match the rug!”
The Pattlees rented their apartment from Nancy Barrington Dolinoff de Wells, one of the block’s most colorful characters. De Wells—a descendant of Revolutionary War hero Samuel Barrington, who’d married a French ballet dancer—fled Europe with her daughters in 1937, bringing enough antique French furniture to furnish the three houses she bought on Baltimore Place.
One chest of drawers had been buried underground for safe keeping during World War I: “When I pull out a drawer,” she told a reporter dramatically in 1940, “The soil of Provence falls out of the cracks.”
The rowhouses declined again in the 1960s. Two homes collapsed when contractors damaged the foundation, and several others were turned into dive bars. Meanwhile, the Downtown Connector, built in 1962, destroyed what remained of downtown’s residential appeal.
The eclectic creatives who called the block home were determined to save their crumbling rowhouses. They got Baltimore Block placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976, but the registry doesn’t protect buildings from demolition, and in the 1980s, another developer tried to buy the homes for an office project. He was stymied by Isabel Hunter Quinton, whose parents bought Number 13 in the 1930s. Once again, a stubborn homeowner had saved the day. “Somebody was always making damn-fool offers!” she told a reporter.
In 1988, with the houses falling apart, another developer proposed to an office complex that would keep the historic homes intact. The homeowners—including Quintin—agreed to sell. Developer Frank Howington turned them into commercial properties, preserving the eight remaining rowhouses, and adding a modern L-shaped building and 15 loft-style apartments above the original homes. It wasn’t exactly historically accurate, but it kept the block standing into the new millennium.
Baltimore Block today
In 2015, Gamma Real Estate purchased Baltimore Block, and refurbished it yet again. “It was very 1980s—it kind of looked like a hospital,” said Matt Jacobs, managing director at Gamma. In their restoration, Jacobs said, “We wanted to really highlight the history, let the more modern pieces fade into the background.”
They updated the contemporary buildings to distinguish them from the brick-front historic homes, which are now individual office spaces. The offices retain many of the original features, including the hardwood floors and marble-mantle fireplaces. Outside, the units still have their original brick facades and white cornices.
Jacobs thinks it’s vital to preserve Atlanta’s few historic buildings for future generations. “These buildings are absolutely beautiful in a way that’s too expensive to build now,” he said. “But it’s also an important in terms of good urbanism, because anything built for humans rather than cars is an important addition to the city.”
After decades of destroying old buildings to make way for cars, many in Atlanta are now advocating to get back to an earlier, more walkable urban design. One such project is the Stitch, which would create 14 acres of public greenspace and improved public transit over the Downtown Connector. It would be built just a stone’s throw from the rowhouses of Baltimore Block, which have withstood 150 years of ever-changing urban landscape.
“Atlanta has made a lot of poor choices in terms of city planning,” Jacobs said. “But we hope that having examples to follow for good, walkable architecture helps inspire people to do better in the future.”