Restoring a 1915 Colonial Revival house

The year was 1915. Woodrow Wilson was President. World War I, then known as the "Great War" was in full swing in Europe, though the United States would remain neutral for another two years. The RMS Lusitania was sunk by a German torpedo. A little closer to home, the Mexican Revolution was ongoing. In the US, the struggle for womens' right to vote was at its peak. The automobile was rapidly becoming a common means of transportation. For entertainment, Americans went to the theater to see Vaudeville shows and silent movies. If they opted for an evening at home, there were many musical selections available for the acoustic disc phonograph, which was now a fixture of many American living rooms. And construction began on our house, which is pictured above.

Before going  into the history of the house, the history of the neighborhood is noteworthy. Ten Hills is an early "streetcar suburb" of Baltimore. The neighborhood was built on the site of the estate of A.S. Chappel, an early chemical manufacturer in Baltimore. His family gave the estate the name "Ten Hills" sometime in the 1880s. The Chappel family mansion was destroyed by fire in 1899 and was never rebuilt.

Around this same time, the United Railways and Electric Co. extended Baltimore's streetcar line along Edmondson Avenue, which borders the Ten Hills property to the northwest. The streetcars provided easy access to the city for people living in the communities of Catonsville and Ellicott City. Naturally, communities began to grow around the streetcar lines all across the city and the outlying areas. The Ten Hills property sat vacant until 1909, when it caught the eye of a group of real estate developers. Charles Steffey, a well-known Baltimore area real estate developer and one of the original Ten Hills investors, particularly liked the property's landscape of rolling hills and mature trees. Steffey envisioned a neighborhood on the property with winding streets and large individual lots - something few of the other streetcar suburbs of Baltimore had to offer at the time. The land was purchased by the group of investors and by the close of 1909, the property had been subdivided into lots that averaged approximately a half acre each and winding streets were laid out.

The name Ten Hills stuck to the neighborhood and the Ten Hills Corporation was formally established on March 17, 1910. Lots were sold to prominent residents of Baltimore and construction began on the original houses. Ten Hills was advertised as "The Country Suburb" due to its layout and location. Most of the houses constructed within the first several years were Colonial Revivals with a few Spanish Colonials, Tudor Revivals, and Craftsman style homes interspersed. Most contained at least 2,500 finished square feet with at least 5 bedrooms, were at least two stories, and had a full basement. Homes were sold by Caughy and Company Real Estate and by Charles H. Steffey Real Estate. Baltimore city annexed Ten Hills in 1918. Construction in the neighborhood continued through the 1920s, with a shift in style toward mainly Tudor Revivals and Storybook houses as the years progressed. Ten Hills was expanded in later years, with a group of houses on the southeastern end being added in the 1950s through the 1980s.

Click here to view a copy of a circa 1921 Ten Hills brochure.

Our house is one of the original Ten Hills Colonials. The house was designed by Walter M. Gieske (1883-1926), an architect from Catonsville who designed many buildings and residences in the area in the 1910s and 1920s. Construction began on the house in late 1915. The original owners were David Dutrow Thomas (1871-1957), his wife Mary Elizabeth (1877-1941), and their five children: David D. Jr. (1902-1978), Harriett Elizabeth (1904-?), Helen Barton (1906-1973), Margaret Williams (1909-1983), and Oscar Trundle (1912-1979). We can't find any record of when the family moved into the house, but it was probably sometime in 1916, as most of the houses in this neighborhood took several months to a year to construct and the dates on the bathtubs, which were some of the later items added during the construction of the house, were from early 1916. David D. Thomas, Sr., was a mechanical engineer and inventor who worked for the Baltimore Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Co. located in Sparrows Point on the east side of Baltimore, completely across the city from the house. This would have been an unusually long commute in the mid 1910s. Among Mr. Thomas's accomplishments was a patent for a superheater for marine boilers, which was filed in 1917 and granted on October 29, 1918. Mr. Thomas must have benefited financially from the patent, as he paid the house off in full on May 6, 1919.

Click here to view a copy of Mr. Thomas's patent.

We haven't been able to find much additional information on the Thomas family or the early years of the house. A Johns Hopkins University directory published in January 1919 lists David D. Thomas, Jr., of Ten Hills as a student in engineering. He apparently started college at the age of 16 or 17 and followed in his father's footsteps. Later in life, he went on to become the owner of Fallon and Hellen, which was an upscale furniture manufacturer and dealer in Baltimore. He passed away in 1978 and the store went out of business in the early 1990s.

It is through Mr. Thomas's eldest son that our house has an indirect tie to Edgar Allan Poe. The offices of Fallon and Hellen were located at 11 East Mulberry Street in Baltimore, a circa 1820s rowhouse known as the J.H.B. Latrobe house. It was inside the Latrobe house that entries to a writing contest held by the Baltimore Saturday Visiter were reviewed in October 1833 and a then-unknown Edgar Allan Poe was chosen as the winner.

After having lived here for about thirteen years, the Thomas family sold the house on April 3, 1929. The buyers were Herbert King (1884-1952), a Baltimore lawyer, his wife Matilda (1888-1967), and their daughter Mary Claire (1911-2008). The 1930 census shows the King family as having a father and son from Germany by the name of Herdman Schwatka and Herdman Schwatka, Jr., living in the house as boarders. The senior Mr. Schwatka was also a lawyer, possibly a colleague of Mr. King, or perhaps a relative of Mrs. King, who was of German ancestry. The King family had some extended family members living in the house on several occasions during their time here. Sometime in the early 1930s, Mrs. King's father, Rudolph Sommerwerck, moved into the house with the King family. Mr. Sommerwerck was a former director of the German-American Fire Insurance Co. based in Baltimore and was a prominent citizen of the German immigrant community. Mr. Sommerwerck passed away in the house on November 26, 1936, Thanksgiving Day, at age 83. In later years, Mrs. King's brother, John Sommerwerck (1886-1972), lived in the house until his passing.

The house was the residence of the King family for the rest of their lives. Mr. King passed away in September 1952
and Mrs. King in 1967.

The Kings' daughter, Mary Claire, married Mr. Milton Evans Hilliard (1904-1995), a pharmacist, and had two children, Nancy and Milton E., Jr. "Mrs. Claire", as she was known in the neighborhood, lived the rest of her life in the house. She passed away in December 2008 at age 97, having lived here for nearly 80 years.

We closed on the house on June 26, 2009, after several annoying and unnecessary delays thanks to our lender due to their prejudices against older houses. We won't go into any specific details, but here's a message to all potential old house buyers out there. Stand your ground and don't give up. Persistence pays off.