When Ruth Walls was house-hunting in the northern reaches of Prince George’s County, she took a long look at the offerings in the City of Laurel Historic District.
Her initial reaction, she recalled, was: “Oh, my gosh! The houses are on top of each other!” And yet she was drawn by the cozy 1890-vintage Victorian in a stable neighborhood threaded with broad streets and narrow alleys from a bygone era.
“It had good bones,” said her husband, Mike, 60, a lawyer whose office is a short stroll from their front door. “A good skeleton structure.”
So the couple bought the modest house on leafy street for around $70,000. Later, Mike added an addition. “It was a two-story addition as big as the original house,” she said.
Ruth, 60, a registered nurse and longtime civic activist, said her neighborhood proved to be the right fit. “It’s ultra-eclectic, very diverse, very interesting,” she said. “We have a musician, a writer, a stay-at-home mother who home-schools, an ornithologist and a minister. Everyone adds something to the tapestry of Old Town.”
Old Town Laurel — about 20 miles northeast of the District and 20 miles southwest of Baltimore — has a diverse housing stock that includes not only Victorians but also brick ranchers, Cape Cods, bungalows and split-levels.
Perhaps the most prominent former resident was a young Army lieutenant named Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was stationed at nearby Fort Meade. During World War I, he and his bride, Mamie, rented a rambling Victorian on Montgomery Street.
Factory town: While the edges of the Laurel area have added shiny new big-box outlets, condominiums and apartment buildings, Main Street has continued to be the social core of the city of nearly 26,000 residents. Its quaint commercial district includes eateries, a corner butcher shop, an old-style appliance dealer, banks, barbershops and two community theaters. Reflecting the community’s thoroughbred racing heritage, there’s even a family-run maker of riding boots, A.M. Kroop.
Laurel began as a factory town. In 1811, Nicholas Snowden constructed a grist mill, tapping water from the adjacent Patuxent River to power it. Eventually, he made the switch to cotton. Later, Snowden’s son-in-law, Horace Capron, created more room in order to turn out canvas duck used on Baltimore Clipper ship sails and Conestoga wagon covers. Capron also built houses for mill workers, who clocked as many as 12 hours a day. In all, he put up 50 blocks of two-story stone and brick houses with manicured yards and vegetable gardens.
By the late 19th century, the mill was the leading employer in town. Men earned an average monthly wage of $9.54, according to the Laurel Historical Society, while women brought home $5.
“The great thing about living in a historic neighborhood is you become a part of the continuum of the value and the values of a community,” said Shannon Perich, who has lived in a 97-year-old Cape Cod with her husband and two children for 16 years.
Old Town, she added, offers a certain level of “charm” because it was built by everyday people.
Family vibe: Perich, 45, curator in the division of culture and arts at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, said her husband keeps a garden in the back yard. “Because we’re history people, we’re always digging up stuff. Sometimes animal bones, pieces of china, tiny bottles, piece of toys from the 1920s and 1930s,” she said.
A handful of the historic churches around Old Town are still around. St. Mary of the Mills Catholic Church, built in 1890, was the first Jesuit mission from Georgetown University. A few blocks east, Capron lent his support in the establishment of St. Philip’s Episcopal. In the steeple over the bright-red front door rests a bell that was first housed at St. Paul’s in Baltimore. During the War of 1812, it pealed to warn that the British were on the move.
History also abounds at the east end of Main Street. On a tiny bluff stands the red-brick Baltimore and Ohio Railroad depot. The vintage 1884 structure continues in regular use for passengers bound for the District and Baltimore on MARC’s Camden Line. It was designed by Francis Baldwin, who designed the rear wing of the State House in Annapolis.
“The biggest thing I’ve learned is that they really appreciate their town,” said Tabitha Clark, co-owner of the new More Than Java store on Main Street. “This historic part is like a big family, and they hold tight to that. They come here, they meet. Everybody knows each other. It has such a family vibe.”
Living there: Old Town Laurel covers a stretch of about a mile directly south of the Patuxent River, along Main and Montgomery streets roughly from Patuxent Road on the west to Washington Boulevard (U.S. Route 1) on the east. The historic district’s boundaries are jagged, but it covers the same territory.
In the past 12 months, 16 homes were sold in the historic district — six of them foreclosures, fixer-uppers or short sales — at prices ranging from $154,900 for a four-bedroom, one-bathroom Victorian to $349,000 for a four-bedroom, two-bath Colonial, said Jim Fischetti, an agent with Keller Williams Realty in Columbia. There are two active listings: a four-bedroom, three-bath Colonial priced at $309,875 and a five-bedroom, three-bath Colonial priced at $359,900.
Four houses are under contact, at prices ranging from $114,900 for a two-bedroom, two-bath Colonial to $379,000 for a four-bedroom, two-bath Victorian.
Schools: Laurel Elementary, Dwight D. Eisenhower Middle and Laurel High, as well as the private St. Mary of the Mills School and St. Vincent Pallotti High.
Transit: The neighborhood is served by Metrobus and Central Maryland Regional Transit buses and the Laurel MARC commuter-rail station.
Crime: Over the past eight months, according to the Laurel police, the historic district has had one armed robbery, 10 burglaries, 10 assaults and seven motor-vehicle thefts.
Tony Glaros is a freelance writer.