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Jewish American Historical Places: Park Circle Historic District

Baltimore, Maryland

Park Circle Historic District in Baltimore, Maryland was an early suburban Jewish neighborhood developed when the children of Eastern European immigrants moved from East Baltimore to the city’s northwest outskirts, setting the pattern for further expansion of Baltimore’s Jewish community to the northwest. The neighborhood is located at the convergence of two major arteries, Reisterstown Road and Park Heights Avenue, and is directly northwest of Druid Hill Park. From the early 20th century to the 1960s, Park Circle was part of Baltimore’s largest predominately Jewish neighborhood. The residential buildings, primarily composed of brick porch-front duplexes and row housing, maintains a homogenous residential character with nearly all the houses built within a thirty year time period (1900-1930). Among the typical elements of these houses are first floor front porches, projecting bay windows on the second floor level and a distinctive roof element, such as cornices or gables completing facades. Most houses are two stories high with tan brick building walls. The earliest construction of duplexes built along park Heights Avenue began in 1900. 1945 marks the completion of construction in the area. In the 1800s the Baltimore and Resitertown Turnpike went through the area, following the current Pennsylvania Avenue and Reistertown Road from Franklin Street in Baltimore city to Reistertown, and was largely used by farmers bringing goods to Baltimore City.

Historically, Baltimore’s Jewish community dates from the late 18th century, but was less than 1,500 strong prior to 1845. By the Civil War, an estimated 8,000 Jews lived in Baltimore, largely due to the influx of German Jews. Synagogues and Jewish communal organizations were established in the downtown area and in East Baltimore in the vicinity of the present day U.S. Post Office. With the migration of eastern European Jews in the late 19th century, the Jewish population swelled to an estimated 25,000 by 1901. There was a distinct split between Baltimore’s more prosperous and assimilated German Jewish community and the more traditional and poorer eastern European Jewish immigrants in the 1890s. German Jews often owned the clothing factories where eastern European Jews labored. The rise of unions and socialist groups within the Eastern Jewish community was an anathema to the German Jews. The differences became geographic, as well as social, economic and religious. Between 1892 and 1905, the established German Jewish community moved uptown, relocating five major synagogues from downtown and East Baltimore. The newer eastern European Jewish community remained in East Baltimore. By 1920 the estimated Jewish population in Baltimore was 65,000.

As the sons and daughters of Eastern European Jewish immigrants prospered, they followed their co-religionists to the northwest, first in Reservoir Hill and by 1920 to Park Circle and the greater Park Heights community. Soon synagogues were established in the new community, and kosher butcher shops and other businesses located in the commercial row that developed in the 3500 block of Park Heights Avenue (since demolished). Among the businesses on this block listed in the 1928 directory were: Michael H. Goldstein, meats; Philip Holzman, baker; Isaac Lapidus, delicatessen, Bertha Friedman, dry goods; Isaac Davis, shoe repair; Meyer Lubman, meats; Abraham Carpman, confectionary; David Schwarz, produce; and Morris Brenner, butter and eggs. Some noteworthy Baltimoreans lived in the Park Circle Historic District. Jack Pollack’s Trenton Democratic Club was located at 3701 Park Heights Avenue. Pollack, an important political boss of the early to mid-20th century, helped to elect Jewish politicians to high office including: Governor Marvin Mandel, Mayor Philip H. Goodman, City Councilman Solomon Liss and Allen Spector, and Judges Albert Sklar and Paul Dorf. Local author and historian, Gilbert Sandler was born at 3608 Cottage Avenue in Park Circle. He has written columns for the Baltimore Sun, the Jewish Times, and Baltimore Magazine and written books, among them Jewish Baltimore: A Family Album. Another notable resident is Arthur Ocean Waskow, born in 1930, an author, political activist and rabbi associated with the Jewish Renewal movement, and a graduate of John Hopkins University. Waslow was involved in the civil rights struggle, the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa and the struggle to end the Soviet Union’s oppression of Jews.

Important buildings within the Park Circle Historic District are the Louisia May Alcott School No. 59; the Shaarei Zion Synagogue (opened in 1926) the Enoch Pratt Free Library Branch No. 16 (designed by architects J. Appleton Wilson and Wilson L. Smith), opening in 1912, and the Talmudical Academy, a Jewish Day School built in 1937 with additions in 1945 and 1960. The Talmudical Academy moved from East Baltimore to 3701 Cottage Avenue in 1939 and marked the shift of Baltimore’s Jewish community from East Baltimore to Park Heights. The school grew from 225 students to approximately 1,000 at this location.

During the 1960s, there was a rapid population shift in the Park Heights area and the earlier residents moved to Upper Parks Heights, Pikesville and Randallstown while African Americans, with the end of segregation, moved in to the neighborhood. Afterwards some of the original houses were demolished but the area maintains its historic character. A Master Plan for Park Heights approved in 2006 by the Baltimore City Planning Commission includes a historic preservation component to utilize historic preservation tax credits for revitalizing neighborhoods such as Park Circle.

Park Circle Historic district was listed in the National Register of Historic places on December 4, 2008.

Sources: National Parks Service