Chandlers Yard: Baltimore, MD

How the neighbors in the Federal Hill neighborhood turned a vacant alleyway into a quiet courtyard escape from the bustle of Baltimore
Source: Leanila Baptiste

A few homeowners in the Federal Hill neighborhood of Baltimore have discovered that they can enjoy all the amenities of city living without the usual anonymity or lack of green space. Hidden behind eleven narrow row houses, Chandlers Yard is a tree-shaded courtyard carved out of the backyards of surrounding homes. Here, the neighbors of Chandlers Yard are assured a pleasant green view from their homes and private yards. It is a quiet place, perfect for reading the morning paper and enjoying a cup of coffee. It is also a crossroads, where neighbors sometimes stop and talk about their day, or catch up on each other's news.The courtyard is an intimate space that includes a small green lawn shaded by mature crabapples, and a flagstone terrace just large enough for a patio table and chairs.

The expansive tree overhanging the terrace gives diners a shady spot to sit and is a point of community pride, though there is a running debate as to whether it is a dawn redwood or a bald cypress. At the east end, the courtyard narrows into a landscaped path. This asymmetry, which adds to the charm of the space, came about because several contiguous neighbors decided not to participate when the courtyard was created. A low wooden fence delineates the transition from the neighbors' private backyards to the courtyard they share. Each homeowner has a matching gate, giving them access from their private yard to the shared courtyard. The fence and gates are owned and maintained by the Chandlers Yard Homeowners Association. Today, Chandlers Yard is a secret gem in the Federal Hill neighborhood, where many people walk to work in downtown Baltimore, and in the evenings, step out to a local pub for a pint. Today, people who choose to live in Federal Hill are generally in their twenties and thirties.

Many of them are students and some probably consider themselves hip and trendy. In the 1960s, it was the hip and trendy twenty-somethings of that era that began the process of reviving Federal Hill. However, this work was almost short-circuited before it even began. In the mid 1960s, the Baltimore City Council gave serious consideration to a proposal to demolish much of the neighborhood and parts of Fells Point and Canton to make way for the "East-West Expressway" that would become part of Interstate 95. In preparation, the City condemned many of the homes in Federal Hill and gave residents a cash settlement.

Ironically, this event led to the neighborhood's rebirth, rather than its destruction. A group of citizens, concerned about the loss of their neighborhoods, organized and initiated a campaign to reroute the highway project.

Eventually, the citizens' coalition was successful in getting both Fells Point and Federal Hill listed on the National Register of Historic Places as historic districts. This move effectively blocked the City's proposal because federal law prohibits the construction of a federally-funded highway through a National Historic District.

The City found itself the owner of hundreds of properties in these neighborhoods. They launched the Dollar House Program that fueled a revitalization of Federal Hill. Winners of a lottery were allowed to buy one of the condemned row houses as long as they agreed to rehabilitate and live in it. Because the demand for houses was greater than the number available, not everyone who entered the lottery was able to buy a dollar house. Many of those who missed out decided to buy in Federal Hill and Fells Point anyway, thus accelerating the regeneration of these neighborhoods.

Around this time, fledgling developer Bill Struever bought and rehabbed a house on Gremlenn Street in Federal Hill. Despite the renewed interest in the neighborhood, he had difficulty finding a buyer. Someone suggested that to be successful at this endeavor he should buy and rehabilitate an entire block of houses. He bought several homes on Gremlenn Street, including three industrial garages that he rebuilt as modern row houses.

Initially many of the homes were only shells of their former selves. The backyards were delineated only by a narrow footpath and more often than not were filled with junk and rubble. Some were cemented over, a common situation in Federal Hill. According to one homeowner, they were "little, little plots."

Bill Struever wanted to improve this situation and so developed the idea of a shared interior courtyard. He convinced several homeowners on Cross Street to go along with his vision and eventually recruited eleven households willing to pay 1000 dollars and give up a portion of their backyards to construct the courtyard.

Construction of the courtyard was achieved by designating the group of homes a Planned Unit Development (PUD), which is a planning device usually used for much larger development projects. The PUD designation allowed Struever much more flexibility in designing the size and shape of the reorganized lots than traditional zoning. Because several of the abutting homeowners decided not to go along with Struever's plan, the shared courtyard ended up in a flag shape. Amy Gould designed the courtyard with a narrow path at one end that leads to a rectangular green and flagstone terrace.

Neighors maintain private backyards that are delineated by short, wooden fences. To unify the space, the same material was used for all fences, including the taller fences that border the yards of neighbors who chose not to participate in Chandlers Yard. Additionally, many homeowners have added second and third story decks to their homes which take advantage of both the view of the courtyard and the views of downtown Baltimore and the harbor.

 Each homeowner was given a share in the courtyard, which was indicated by a separate deed attached to the deed of each house. This arrangement specified that when a house sold on Chandlers Yard, the new homeowner bought into the courtyard by signing both the deed to the house and the deed to the courtyard. A homeowners association with elected officers was formed and bylaws established to manage the space. Despite this formal arrangement, neighbors have found it easier to make decisions about the space informally. Residents may reserve the courtyard for private events by sending around a note to neighbors explaining their intentions. The Fourth of July, however, is set aside as a special day so that everyone can enjoy the fireworks display over the harbor from within the courtyard.

Soon after Vaughn moved onto the courtyard in 1994, the homeowners' dues, which were quite modest, increased to 360 dollars per year. These funds feed into a capital fund established by the Chandlers Yard Neighbors Association. The proceeds from this fund were recently used to re-landscape the courtyard. The work included re-leveling of the lawn and terrace, as well as the addition of new plantings.

One homeowner who has lived on Chandlers Yard since its inception in 1976, described the early days when neighbors spent evenings together in the courtyard. She said, "someone would bring out a bottle of wine, and someone else would bring out some chicken and we would stay out [in the courtyard] late into the night." Now, she said, people are older and their time is more limited. Vaughn jokingly added, "I guess we are too old. The neighborhood is too established."

Current residents of Chandlers Yard tend to be in their thirties, forties and fifties, somewhat older than many other Federal Hill residents. Most are singles or couples. Some neighbors observe a tendency for families to move away once their family begins to grow, perhaps desiring more space and better schools. Currently, only one household on the courtyard has school-aged children. According to current residents, even if homeowners on Chandlers Yard move away because of retirement or to buy a vacation home, their love for Federal Hill is so great that they choose to locate in another part of the neighborhood.

A sense of security provided by the enclosed courtyard attracted Vicki Vaughn to Chandlers Yard. She said, "I feel a lot safer with the courtyard there. Its pretty hard to get back there. I feel its unlikely that someone would break into the front of my house. Even if someone did get back [in the courtyard], how would they get out? I feel a sense of security because I know all my neighbors; I feel they are watching out for me, yet I never feel on display when I am using the space. We have a real sense of community."

Vaughn also described how she looked at houses all over the Federal Hill neighborhood, and that while many kept their own private backyards nicely maintained, many did not have back fences and the view from the alley was often cluttered with items such as old refrigerators. Because the private backyards of Chandlers Yard are visible from the common area, she can also be assured that people will maintain their own private spaces. These beautiful private spaces add to the charm of the courtyard and visually the public and private spaces merge, creating a sense of expansiveness in this small space. Residents we spoke with agreed that the lack of green space in other parts of Federal Hill made Chandlers Yard very attractive to them.

Being an anomaly does have its drawbacks, though. Finding a landscaping company that will agree to maintain a small space like Chandlers Yard has been a problem. Also, maintenance of the community lawnmower has been challenging. Vaughn described how she detached the mower blade and carried it down to the local hardware store to get it sharpened. She said the owner, "looked at me like I was crazy!" They didn't have the equipment to sharpen a lawnmower blade because no one in Federal Hill has lawns!"

Routine maintenance of the space is taken care of by the neighbors themselves. They rotate mowing responsibilities and have a weeding party each spring. Automatic landscape lights that sit low to the ground light the space. Both the electricity for the lighting and water are provided by one of the houses on the courtyard that was occupied by the president of the Homeowners Association. This homeowner sends a bill to the Association at the end of each year.

For homeowners, increasing property values have been an added benefit to living on Chandlers Yard. A newly refurbished home could be bought for approximately $95,000 in 1976. One home on the block recently sold for $290,000, which is quite high for Baltimore, a city where it is still affordable to live downtown. Recent new construction in the neighborhood starts at $250,000. It is difficult to predict the effect of the courtyard on property value at Chandlers Yard because some homes also have a view of the harbor from second and third story balconies.

It is clear that residents feel Chandlers Yard offers a unique opportunity in city living. The amenities of the city are only a walk away and the serenity and safety of the suburbs is at their backsteps. Additionally, they feel part of a community of neighbors. They have discovered how to achieve a balance of privacy and community that allows them to fully enjoy living in the city.