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History of Union Square

The story of Union Square began in 1799 with the construction of a manor house by Thorogood Smith, a merchant and Baltimore’s second mayor whose fortunes ebbed before he could to occupy the house. It was sold at auction in 1802 to John Donnell, a merchant. The Donnell family lived at Willow Brook manor house and in its original 26-acre country estate form until about 1846. Donnell was responsible for parceling out the first plots of land for the construction of homes. Three sons of John Donnell leased grounds around the park, laid out specifications for houses, and graded and paved streets bordering the Square in the 1840s. 

Dubbed “Millionaire’s Row,” the portion of Stricker St. facing the Square featured the Italianate residences of bankers, investors, and factory owners. Other variations of the Italianate style lined the blocks leading up to and surrounding the square. Less ornate homes were put up in groups on side and alley streets, but all shared many identical features such as cornices, marble steps, and iron work. Common brick was often used on side walls, with hard surface English brick on the front. The largest rooms were typically the front parlors and master bedrooms – smaller rooms were placed to the rear.

Ceiling medallions, cornices, staircase millwork, and fireplace designs were individualized features, chosen from home order catalogs. Most of the wrought or cast ironwork in the neighborhood was made in the Hayward, Bartlett, and Co. Factory near the B&O Yards to the south of the neighborhood. Evenly spaced doorsteps, windows, and doors, as well as continuous rooflines create the visual rhythms for which Baltimore rowhouses are noted. 

The two-and-one-half acres for the park was approved for that use and donated by the Donnells in 1847. The landscape of Union Square – with its walkways, pavilion, fountain, and wrought iron lamps – recalls Victorian Era Baltimore. Architect John F. Hoss designed the iron Greek-style pavilion with fluted columns in 1850 – it covers a natural spring that was once accessible by steps and, at one time, supplied water to the B&O Railroad.

Willow Brook, the estate house, was acquired in 1864 by Emily Caton McTavish, granddaughter of Charles Carroll (a signer of the Declaration of Independence). Within a year, she donated it to the Roman Catholic Church as a school for delinquent girls, under the administration of the Congregation of the Good Shepherd. Additions and renovations changed the original structure over the next 100 years until the school closed in 1965, the property was sold, and the buildings were dismantled. Willow Brook’s interior oval drawing room had long enjoyed national acclaim and, still intact, it was moved to the Baltimore Museum of Art for public and permanent display. The area was designated a National Register Historic District in 1967, two years after Willow Brook was razed. Steuart Hill Academic Academy currently stands on the site.

In 1997 the well preserved square played the title role in the film Washington Square, with several nearby homes in supporting roles, Other parts of the neighborhood have also appeared in episodes of Homicide—Life on the Street, The Wire and various commercials and an upcoming Lifetime Movie.

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