History of Stoneleigh
Stoneleigh, the suburban community, stands upon the original estate, which surrounded Stoneleigh House and takes its name from the picturesque old building. Thus Stoneleigh, the suburb in which we live, comes by its name honestly. It is not a mere mellifluous name dreamed up by a real estate developer. The name has solid historic significance.
Origin of Street Names
A Look Back: History of the Stoneleigh Neighborhood
Old Maryland records show that in the early 1700’s a certain James Govane emigrated from Scotland to this colony. His son, William Govane, became a ship owner and importer of Annapolis. It appears that William Govane foresaw that Baltimore would sometime eclipse Annapolis as a port and trading center, for in 1755 he applied to Frederick Calvert, the sixth Lord of Baltimore, for a grant of land in Baltimore County. The Lord Proprietary complied by issuing to Govane a patent for a large tract of land “on the ridge of high ground dividing the watersheds of Herring Run and Jones Falls, four or five miles north of Baltimore Town.”
Govane, anticipating Lord Baltimore’s generosity, had already moved to the property and established his home at an estate which he named Drumqhasle, on a winding road which led northward from Baltimore to other estates in the central part of the county and eventually to York, Pa. This ancient road, once called Betty Bush Lane, later became known as Bellona Avenue, named for the Roman goddess of war because a powder mill was established upon it. The York road as we know it today did not then exist.
As time passed Govane found that his property was too large for him or his son James to operate effectively as a plantation. He began selling small tracts bordering on Bellona Avenue, so that eventually a village grew up which became known as Govane’s Town. In time the name Govane’s Town became abbreviated to Govanstown – now known as Govans.
By 1786 a distinct need had developed for an improved and more direct road between Baltimore and York. Accordingly, Baltimore County was authorized to construct a turnpike ‘to increase the commerce” between the two cities. This turnpike which became today’s York Road, was surveyed and in the upper portion of the county in general followed the route of the old road; but nearing Baltimore it broke away from the winding Bellona Avenue, led directly from the north to the crossing of the Joppa Road where Towsontown (now Towson) grew up, then swung southward to follow the ridge of high ground forming the backbone of the Govane estate until it entered growing Baltimore Town. During the first half of the Nineteenth Century, following the death of William Govane, his great estate was further broken up into smaller tracts with the major portion passing to one of his descendants, Govane Howard. The York Road, becoming increasingly important, in 1847 attained the dignity of having an omnibus line operating from Govanstown to Towsontowne, the latter soon (1851) to become capitol of Baltimore County following the political separation of Baltimore City and the county.
A move was in progress – for those living in the congested areas of large cities who could afford to do so — to move to the more spacious regions beyond the municipal boundaries. In 1850 one Robert P. Brown, whose family was in Baltimore on Holliday Street, at or near where the City Hall now stands, decided that living conditions in the center of a fast-growing city had become intolerable. Brown was wealthy enough to move into more spacious surroundings. His father, Dr. George Brown, was a native of Ireland who had emigrated to Baltimore in time to benefit from the city’s post-Revolutionary growth and who became not only the founder of the old Baltimore Medical College but also was the first president of the University of Maryland’s Board of Regents. Dr. Brown prospered and his son Robert inherited ample funds.
And so in 1850 Robert P. Brown bought from Govane Howard a tract of 230 acres of land on York Road five miles north of the city. In 1852 he began construction of a family home on his newly acquired estate.
He called it Stoneleigh House. From it, as mentioned above, the suburb of Stoneleigh derives its name.
The Stoneleigh Estate
Just why did Brown bestow the name Stoneleigh on his property? There is no certain answer to that question. One version is that the estate was named “after Stoneleigh Abbey in England.” There is indeed a Stoneleigh Abbey in England, but it is by no means well known and has, so far as the records show, no connection with the Brown family. Furthermore, Dr. Brown is known to have emigrated from Ireland, and if he were a true Irishman he would have nothing to do with things English. Another version is that the name Stoneleigh has a dual derivation – the “stone” from the stony soil on which the estate was located and the “leigh” from a family of that name into which the Browns are understood to have married. Some support is given to that theory by the fact that the granddaughter of Stoneleigh’s builder, Robert P. Brown, was named Mary Leigh Brown.
Whatever the origin of the name, Stoneleigh House became a show place which was to endure for more than a century.
Robert P. Brown spared no expense in building his new home. To design it he engaged the distinguished Viennese architect John Rudolph Niernsee, who also designed the Jenck’s house at 1 West Mount Vernon Place in Baltimore. Niernsee’s plans called for a country seat of 22 rooms in the Italian villa style then becoming popular in the United States. Rooms on the first floor had ceilings 13 feet high; those on the second floor 11 feet high. Bricks used in the house were of the finest quality. Tin for the roof was imported from overseas. Furnishings were of the best that the times afforded – Empire and Victorian pieces tastefully intermingled with a few Eighteenth Century tables and linen presses from the old Brown Home on Holliday Street.
Robert P. Brown personally selected the site for the house, at the end of a curving lane linking the grounds with York Road. Along the lane Brown planted noble trees which still stand. Around the house he laid out formal gardens, built stables and tenant’s quarters and a greenhouse, established a small lake for production of ice in the winter and beside it built an icehouse.
Cost of the main house was $15,738.94, as shown by the contractor’s final bill, still in possession of members of the Brown family. Outbuildings ran the initial cost of the entire building program up to $17,381.94.
Stoneleigh House – A Grand Home for the Brown Family
Stoneleigh House became the home of the Brown family for four generations. Robert P. Brown the builder had one son, George Brown, born in 1828 and therefore 24 years old when the family moved to Stoneleigh. George Brown had three daughters, and in time the house became the scene of many lavish parties. Apparently Brown found 230 acres more than adequate for the gracious living of his time, for he eventually sold 100 acres to a member of the family who created an estate called Anneslie. The Anneslie mansion house, dignified but less pretentious than the Stoneleigh House, still stands on Dunkirk Road and gave its name to the suburb of Anneslie, southward of Stoneleigh.
Of George Brown, master of Stoneleigh House in the days following the Civil War, a genealogical-biographical volume dealing with “the leading families of the City of Baltimore and Baltimore County” says: “Inheriting a very large estate, our subject was not obliged to work for a livelihood, but gave his attention to the supervision of his valuable interests. His home on the York Road was a beautiful place, containing about one hundred and thirty acres of valuable land.”
Two of the Brown girls married, but Miss Mary Leigh Brown, third of the daughters of George Brown, remained a spinster and continued to live in Stoneleigh House. In the Gay Nineties, Stoneleigh House was one of a succession of great estates which bordered York Road – estates such as Guilford, the A. S. Abell property; Kernewood, the estate of D. S. Wilson; the vast Homeland estate of David M. Perine; Ravenswood, the Dr. John A. Craig estate; and Evesham, the H. J. Johnson, Jr. estate. The extensive properties of the Myers family lay north of Evesham. Back from York Road on the west was Drumqhasle, the original name of the Govane Howard estate but now applied to property owned by H. M. Bush. Later the name Drumqhasle was to be transferred to property on York Road north of Walker Avenue – the property on which once stood the Stewart and Co. suburban department store and its adjacent shopping center. The name Drumcastle as given to an apartment development on Walker Avenue behind the shopping center is an Anglicization of what may have been originally a Welch place name.
North of Walker Avenue was Anneslie, owned by the Harrison family in the 1890’s. Stoneleigh, as we have seen, lay north of Anneslie, and the two properties were separated then as now by Regester Avenue, which took its name from John Regester, Baltimore iron founder who owned property in the area now known as Idlewylde and who acquired a right-of-way from the Harrisons and Browns in order to have an exit from York Road. North of Stoneleigh was the John Stevenson estate, which gave its name to the present Stevenson Lane and on which the suburb of Wiltondale now stands.
An important factor in the growth of York Road suburbs as the city pushed northward was their accessibility. The original omnibus line of 1847 was succeeded in 1863 by horse cars operating on rails laid on the east side of York Road all the way to Towson. These same rails were used by trolleys when the lines were electrified. Slowly but surely Baltimore expanded until Govanstown was engulfed and the suburban developments of Cedarcroft, Pinehurst and others were created even father out York Road.
World War I found Baltimore growing faster than ever as thousands descended upon the city to work in the shipyards and war equipment plants. In 1919 the city line was established just above Walker Avenue on York Road, but already the Anneslie estate had been carved into building lots for the burgeoning population of Baltimore. The expansion continued when the war ended.
It was thus inevitable that Stoneleigh estate must become a suburban development. The gently rolling fields around Stoneleigh House, the extensive frontage on York Road, the natural beauty resulting from the hundreds of trees that George Brown had planted and nurtured, and the favorable location just beyond the new city line all combined into a powerful lure for those of the real estate fraternity. Various proposals were made to Miss Mary Leigh Brown, the occupant of Stoneleigh House, and the other heirs. A development plan advanced in 1922 by a group of men headed by Irvin E. Butler, who had been associated with the buildup of Roland Park and Guilford in Baltimore, was accepted. Immediately an organization known as the Stoneleigh Corporation was formed, with Mr. Butler as president.
The development plan called for the corporation to acquire approximately 110 acres to be divided into building lots, with Miss Brown and the other heirs to retain title to Stoneleigh House and about 19 to 20 acres surrounding it, in the center of the new development. From the very first, the plans called for the creation of a superior type of residential suburb and for that we of Stoneleigh today must indeed by grateful.
A newspaper account of the Stoneleigh project dated May 27, 1923, states that construction of roads and improvements in the area had been in progress for several months and that lots were being laid out in preparation for building operations. The account goes on to say:
“Landscape and building architects who planned the Guilford sections have been put in charge of all plans of the (Stoneleigh) community. Houses that are individual in their design and marks of beauty will be constructed.
It is the desire of the company to retain the original beauty and dignity of the old estate while constructing houses harmonizing with its natural outlines. Already it has been necessary to divert in some instances roadways in order that some giant poplar, old maple or gum tree, might not be sacrificed.
Present plans call for macadamizing roads throughout the development at a cost of more than $15,000. Other improvements will cost the developments more than $200,000 for the present year. The entrance, existing for years, will remain in its distinctive state, the developers promise. The site from the York Road has earned the name from motorist “The Terrace of Trees.”
That was a reference, of course, to the winding tree-lined roadway which led from York Road into Stoneleigh House, and which was retained by the developers as one of the first designated streets in the community. It is the Stoneleigh Road of today. The newspaper article concludes by stating:
“Protective restrictions will be the rule of the owners in selling the property.”
A street plan for the community, taking into account the natural contours of the land in relation to existing streets such as York Road and Regester Avenue, was a basic attraction of the new suburb. The Stoneleigh Corporation not only sold building lots, but to give the community a good start, began construction of homes for sale in an effort to establish the architectural tone of the community. Most of the homes built by the corporation were of stucco or masonry construction and were scattered about the community one or two to a block to give an appearance of active building all over the suburb. Anyone strolling around Stoneleigh today can easily pick out these sturdy comfortable-looking homes.
By 1924 things were booming in Stoneleigh. The corporation, alert to the needs of the community, established a facility called the Stoneleigh Club, which had as its principal objective the construction of a swimming pool primarily for the use of the residents. Brig. Gen. Robert J. Gill, one of the developers of Stoneleigh, is credited with originating the idea of constructing the pool. It was built on the site of the old Brown ice-pond, in the triangular block bounded by Hatherleigh Road, Tred Avon Road and Wardman Road. General Gill was much interested in Western Maryland College at that time and is said to have brought the college football team to train in Stoneleigh in the spring of 1925. In their spare time, according to the story, the players built the pool. It was opened formally on August 5, 1925, with speeches and music. Instantly it became the favored recreation spot of hundreds.
Home-building continued apace in Stoneleigh, and by mid-1927 approximately 100 homes had been completed and occupied. Seven of these dwellings were built by the Stoneleigh Corporation “at a cost of $70,000 to $75,000,” the architect being Harold Appleton Stilwell. Each house contained six rooms, a sun parlor and a bath. Eight additional homes were under construction at the time by private builders.
In 1929 the county took notice of the expansion of home-building in Stoneleigh and adjacent areas by erecting the Stoneleigh public school on a large lot at the head of Copeleigh and Kenleigh Roads, fronting on Pemberton Road. Home construction continued active on Wardman, Kingston, Avondale and Copeleigh Roads and in other sections. The pool, the new school and the obvious intention of the residents to maintain a high standard of life in the community, brought into Stoneleigh many young families who became solid residents. Some of them are still here – but no longer so young.
The financial panic of 1929, which started the Great Depression, inevitably had the effect of slowing the building boom not only in Stoneleigh but everywhere else. By the summer of 1930 the Stoneleigh Corporation was in trouble. In September, the corporation sold a large number of lots in Stoneleigh to the Parkway Development Corporation, which tried with only moderate success to market the lots at reduced prices. In 1931 the Stoneleigh Corporation, under the impact of the depression, went into bankruptcy and most of the its assets in the Stoneleigh area were taken over, under the mortgage arrangement, by the Baltimore Trust Company, at that time one of the city’s largest financial institutions.
Collapse of the Stoneleigh Corporation meant that its “child”, The Stoneleigh Club, was in difficulties. In a short time, the club vanished without a trace, and in February 1933 its charter was forfeited for nonpayment of franchise taxes. The swimming pool, however, continued to function under somewhat remote control by the Baltimore Trust Company, which took over under mortgage foreclosure the property on which the pool was located. For several years the trust company undertook to operate the pool by inviting the general public to use it on a fee basis, but this was a losing venture since the pool was not visible from York Road, few knew where to find it. In June 1937 the Suburban Finance Corporation, a liquidating agency for the Baltimore Trust Company announced its intention to dismantle the pool and sell the property for building lots.
Forming the Stoneleigh Community Association, Inc.
If that had been done, Stoneleigh would have lost one of its most prized assets. Fortunately for all of us, the pool was saved. It was saved by a newly organized civic agency, the Stoneleigh Community Association, Inc.
This association, today one of the most active of its kind in the Baltimore suburban area, was formed in order to legally perpetuate the property covenants and restrictions as originally established by the Stoneleigh Corporation. The bankruptcy of the corporation had meant, of course, that the covenants and restrictions perished with it unless they were assumed by another responsible agency. Several attempts had been made in the early 1930’s to form community associations, but not until 1936 had it become urgent that the property owners organize for mutual protection. A few months after it was created with Alexander Gifford of Regester Avenue as president, the association was confronted with the pool crisis.
Obviously the first move was to find out if the people of Stoneleigh really wanted to keep what was described as the community’s “greatest single asset.” A specially appointed committee of the association made a survey and found that the residents did indeed want to preserve the pool. The sentiment was in fact almost unanimous. Suburban Finance proved to be highly cooperative. The firm first offered to sell to the association the pool and the entire triangular block in which it was located at a cost of
$17,500, less the estimated $5,000 cost of dismantling and filling in the pool, or a net cost to the association of $12,500. In those depression-ridden days that was a large sum. When the committee expressed doubt at its ability to raise that much money, Suburban Finance made a second proposal. It would sell the pool and the surrounding property, with the exception of the building lots fronting on Wardman Road, for $6,000.
That, so far as the Stoneleigh Community Association was concerned, was a reasonable and even generous offer. Under association sponsorship a community stock company known as the Stoneleigh Pool, Inc., was formed to acquire title to the pool property and to finance its purchase, with actual management in the hands of a Pool Operating Committee of the association. Residents of Stoneleigh were then asked to “buy stock” in The Stoneleigh Pool, Inc., under a sound financing plan calling for full repayment to purchasers over a 10 year period and with interest paid on pool securities until their redemption. Stoneleigh responded nobly. The $6,000 was raised, and Stoneleigh saved its pool.
So today the community owns a recreation facility the value of which cannot be measured in mere dollars and cents. The park-like pool grounds, surrounded by towering oak trees and the well-kept green lawns of adjacent homes, provide a sandy “beach” where very young Stoneleighites may play in safety. Literally thousands of children from Stoneleigh and surrounding communities have learned to swim at the pool. It is a focal point for outdoor community festivities throughout the summer – a beauty spot that is the envy of other suburban communities, several of which have sought to establish similar facilities of their own. The purchasers of pool stock have all been paid off, with the thanks of the community for their help at a critical time. Wise management of pool affairs by successive Pool Committees has resulted in substantial improvements in recent years.
The Impact of World War II
Throughout World War II the people of Stoneleigh, like those all over the nation, actively supported all phases of the war effort. A civilian defense organization functioned effectively under the block captain system. No fewer than 106 residents of the community were enrolled in the armed services – an unusually high percentage in view of the relatively small population of Stoneleigh. The soldiers, sailors, marines and others from this community took part in military operations in every part of the world. The cost of victory for Stoneleigh was the lives of six men, four of them in the U.S. Army Air Corps. Those who made the supreme sacrifice were:
Arthur E. Focke, Jr., lst Lt., Air Corps
Louis Hedrick, S l/c, U. S. Navy
Edward J. McCall, Jr., Capt., U. S. Paratroopers
John W. Skidgell, lst Lt., Air Corps
Leon B. Temple,Jr., Maj., Air Corps
William B. Tipton, Col., Air Corps
The names of these six are inscribed upon a bronze plaque at the base of the flagpole in the pool recreation area. This is Stoneleigh’s war memorial.
With the end of the war Stoneleigh resumed the placid way of life which is one of the community’s principal attractions. Construction of new homes was sharply limited by the simple fact that nearly every available lot in the community was already occupied by a family home, but an addition to the Stoneleigh School was built and the County Commissioner installed fire alarm boxes at strategic points.
A New Era Begins
On July 1, 1952, Miss Mary Leigh Brown, the chatelaine of Stoneleigh House, died at the age of eighty-five. Settlement of her estate required that the ancient house and its surrounding acres in the heart of the Stoneleigh community be sold. This was done, with several of her nephews eventually coming into possession of the property. They divided it into building lots and reluctantly decreed that historic old Stoneleigh House must be razed to make way for some fifty new homes. The wreckers moved in late in 1955. They had a somewhat difficult time of it for the passage of 103 years had in no way impaired the sturdiness of the old building. But by the spring of 1956 Stoneleigh House was no more.
But the towering trees of Stoneleigh still remained. Under their branches or in the open spaces bordering the roads, which surrounded Stoneleigh House, new homes rose and new residents of the Stoneleigh community moved in. The original concept of Stoneleigh as a community of homes “individual in their design” for people “discriminating if their selection of a home-site” was carried out with integrity and good taste by the first developers and the builders of the homes on the Stoneleigh House property wisely maintained the same standards.
The original boundaries of the Stoneleigh community were York Road (east side), Hatherleigh Road (both sides), Rich Hill Road (both sides), Pemberton Road (south side), Kenleigh Road (both sides) and Regester Avenue (north side). Over the years, several attempts were made to have Stoneleigh “annex” the 7200 block of Oxford Road, lying between Hatherleigh Road and Stevenson Lane. These attempts were unsuccessful until 1986 when the Stoneleigh community recognizing the common heritage, similar architectural style, and isolation of this lone independent block of 12 homes located between its boundaries and the boundaries of the neighboring community of Wiltondale, incorporated the 7200 block of Oxford Road into its Stoneleigh.
A Tradition for the Future
New residents, whether in the old or new sections, are welcomed into Stoneleigh and are invited to become members of the Stoneleigh Community Association, Inc., the agency that protects and promotes our Stoneleigh Community.
The Stoneleigh Community Association is deeply indebted to Mr. James C. Mullikin for the many hours of research and editing devoted to the publication of this historical work. Without his untiring efforts and literary ability this actual account of Stoneleigh’s past would not have been possible.
The Association thanks the following for assistance in compiling this account: The Maryland Historical Society; the Enoch Pratt Free Library; the Baltimore County Library (Towson); Mr. Earl Pruce, Librarian of the Baltimore News Post; and Mr. Clement G. Vitek, Librarian of the Sunpapers.
Updated in 2020 by Meghan Virro, Stoneleigh Community Association Past-president
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