Architectural Character of the Square

By 1876, Lafayette Square had been developed to a great extent and ornamented with many buildings of grand proportions. The Church of the Ascension (1867-9, now St. James), many imposing residences, including Matthew Bacon Sellers’ impressive brick mansion (1868-9), Grace Methodist Church (1871-6, now Metropolitan), and, perhaps most conspicuous of all, the new State Normal School (1875-6, demolished), set the scale for subsequent building projects in the neighborhood. While the Normal School’s mission and secular bent set it apart from the neighboring churches (it was the only secular institution to locate on Lafayette Square), the school’s red brick and Ohio sandstone building—equipped with a gymnasium, auditorium, and classrooms to accommodate over 200 students, sheltered, for the most part, under a giant, patterned slate roof—firmly established it as an integral part of the life and architectural character of the Square.

Lafayette Square’s churches were fashionable and in keeping with national and international architectural trends. The spires that once topped the English Gothic revival Grace and Ascension churches, combined with the massive German-inspired clock tower of the Normal School, were the Square’s architectural high points, both literally and figuratively. They created an Old World ambiance that was irresistible. Although designed in keeping with the Square’s other Gothic revival buildings, the former Bishop Cummins Memorial (Charles Cassell, architect, 1878, now Emmanuel) and Lafayette Square Presbyterian (Dixon and Carson, architects, 1878-9, now St. John’s) outdid the more conservative-looking churches of the neighboring congregations in both architectural variety and decorative daring and exuberance, signaling that architectural tastes, even within the prevailing Gothic revival style, were susceptible to swift and dramatic change.

For most of the houses on the Square, the three-story, three-bay, flat-roofed, red brick townhouse seems always to have been in fashion, though side yards, mansard roofs, and arch windows helped break the visual monotony of West Baltimore’s highly regular and architecturally uniform residential streets. The overall form of the houses was dictated to a considerable degree by the Lafayette Square Association itself, which set the width of new residences at a minimum of twenty feet and the height at three stories. By the 1880s, alternative styles for houses had taken root on the Square, including the Romanesque and Queen Anne revivals, examples of which survive at 1115 West Lanvale Street and next door at the former Grace Methodist parsonage (1887-1888). In both cases, stone replaced the familiar brick, variety replaced uniformity, irregularity replaced regularity, and dormers and gables replaced flat roofs and massive cornices.