1217 John Street

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1217 John Street
Site Information
Address1217 John Street
Geo-reference51°38′46″N 0°04′07″W / 51.64623°N 0.06862°W / 51.64623; -0.06862
OwnerLawrence Turnbull
Building Data
Building TypeDwelling
Architectural StyleHigh Victorian Gothic
Number of Floors3
ArchitectJ. Appleton Wilson
Architecture FirmWilson and Wilson
Groundbreaking Date1880
CompletedAbt: 1880

The nine houses on the east side of the 1200 block of John Street, known today for their pastel paint and vibrant community spirit, do not look like an earnest Victorian reform project, but that is what they were when they were designed and built in 1880.

The developer, Lawrence Turnbull (1843-1919) was a lawyer, publisher, and Presbyterian preacher. A graduate of Princeton, he clerked for Severn Teackle Wallis, the dean of the Baltimore bar, then launched a monthly magazine called The New Eclectic to bring the latest English writing to readers in the war-devastated south. He brought poet Sidney Lanier to Baltimore and endowed a lecture series at the Peabody Institute. He lived at 1530 Park Avenue, the northernmost house in Beethoven Terrace, for which he is believed to have suggested the name. Grace Turnbull, the sculptor, and Bayard Turnbull, the architect and friend of Scott Fitzgerald, were two of his six children.

Like most cultivated people at most times in history, Turnbull disliked the conventional housebuilding of his time. Instead of flat-fronted brick houses, such as we see today in the Bolton Hill streets around this project, he dreamt of urban cottages that would evoke the English Middle Ages. And put his money where his mouth was. In 1880, finding kindred spirits in the young architects J. Appleton Wilson and William T. Wilson, who were then building very up-to-date London-like houses for the McKim family in the 1000 block of Calvert Street, he hired them to design a group of nine model houses that would show the people of Baltimore how they could build artistically on a modest budget. The result was a group of picturesque houses that could have been built in the same year, or in any year up to about 1939, in any middle-class suburb of London.

For better or worse, Turnbull’s reform did not catch on, and Baltimoreans kept building flat-fronted row houses, leaving this group as a charming accent in the flat-fronted brick neighborhood of Bolton Hill.

According to J. Appleton Wilson photograph of the completed row (Photo 3.46 in the Wilson Collection,) the brick was originally unpainted.

Source: J. Appleton Wilson’s list of Executed Project, No. 86. Wilson Collection photograph 3.46