Gay Street Historic District
Baltimore, Baltimore City
The Gay Street Historic District is a notable example of a late-19th and early-20th century commercial corridor in a developing urban area. The historic district is best understood within a variety of contexts, including the commercial development of the area, early commercial architectural building types, and the development of cast-iron architecture. Within Baltimore City, the Gay Street Historic District appears to be unique in its high concentration of small-scale commercial buildings. With only a single exception, the contributing buildings within the district are either commercial in nature or directly support commercial or light manufacturing enterprises. From its inception, the Gay Street Historic District was geographically segregated from the main downtown area of Baltimore by the location of the Jones Falls (and later the Jones Falls Expressway) to its west. Originally part of a larger rural and agrarian enclave known as Old Town, the area was annexed into the city boundaries in 1792. However, the Gay Street Historic District did not take on its present appearance until the mid 19th century, when small commercial enterprises and light manufacturing enterprises were established. The post-Civil War years were ones of particular growth in the area, with banks and insurance companies making their headquarters on Gay Street. The architecture exemplifies this period in American history and also contains buildings displaying Victorian Eclectic, Beaux Arts, Italianate, and Romanesque elements. Also in the years following the Civil War, two full-front, cast-iron buildings were constructed within blocks of each other on Gay Street. In a city that once had literally hundreds of such buildings, only ten remain in Baltimore today. In addition to the cast-iron buildings, the collection of commercial buildings in the Gay Street Historic District display a broad range of architectural styles and commercial building types. Although the street-level facades of most of the buildings have been altered since their construction, they collectively continue to convey the commercial history of the Gay Street area. Unlike the nearby Jones Town locally designated historic district, which contains a collection of residential, commercial, religious, and public buildings, the buildings found within the Gay Street Historic District are almost entirely commercial, with some related light manufacturing buildings--most notably small warehouses and garages--found on the side streets of the district.
The Gay Street Historic District is significant as an example of a small-scale urban commercial area of the late 19th to early 20th century period. The key buildings are excellent examples of late-19th and early-20th century commercial architecture and epitomize the widespread commercial building types of that period in American architecture. The majority of the commercial buildings which comprise the Gay Street Historic District convey the area's history as a local commercial corridor distinct from the more intensive large-scale development of downtown Baltimore to the west. Within Baltimore City, the Gay Street Historic District appears to be unique in its high concentration of small-scale commercial buildings. Other districts with similar commercial buildings also include significant numbers of residential, religious, and/or public buildings. With only a single exception, the contributing buildings within the Gay Street Historic District are either commercial in nature or directly support commercial or light manufacturing enterprises. The Gay Street Historic District conveys the commercial history of an area that is discrete from the main downtown area of Baltimore. Within buildings that are smaller in scale than many of the downtown buildings of the same era, the Gay Street corridor displays more of a neighborhood commercial character, in contrast to the large department stores and early skyscrapers in downtown. Furthermore, because the Gay Street corridor escaped Baltimore's Great Fire in 1904, the evolution of the commercial area is unchanged by natural disaster, unlike areas of downtown that were rebuilt en masse after the conflagration. Strongly contributing to the historic significance of the district it its overall high degree of integrity despite the alteration of street-level facades. In 1934, the Orleans Street Viaduct was constructed, cutting the area off from the remaining portion of Old Town and initiating an economic and social decline of this once-vibrant commercial corridor.