A photographic tour of Towson

Melissa Schehlein, a Towson native, walked the streets and byways of the Baltimore County seat in search of what was while documenting with her camera what is.

The result of her search was the recently published book, "Towson: Then and Now," a 96-page photo essay that takes readers on a tour of contemporary Towson, which she contrasts photographically with images of earlier years.

In her introduction, Schehlein writes that Towson is the "commercial, political and cultural heart of Baltimore County," and her mission and "primary emphasis is York Road, our defining corridor."

She does, however, take a few side excursions into neighborhoods east and west of the York Road corridor.

York Road, also known as Route 45, was — until the opening of the Harrisburg Expressway in the 1950s — the primary route for travelers between Baltimore and York, Pa., and destinations beyond. It is Towson's main drag.

I found myself becoming almost wistful for the charming village Towson once was and railing against what it has become.

It seems as though planners and developers have gone out of their way to make its commercial heart a repository for a motley collection of contemporary architecture worthy of former Eastern Bloc countries.

In many ways, the present Towson reflects the words of H.L. Mencken, who wrote in his essay "The Libido for the Ugly," published in 1927, of the "love of ugliness for its own sake."

"There really is no there there in Towson. I've heard it referred to as 'The Gateway to Timonium and Lutherville,'" James A. Genthner, a Timonium resident who retired from the State Highway Administration, said with a laugh.

"The Towson of the 1950s was nothing more than a sleepy village and was only a good place to go for a couple of drinks," he recalled.

What charm Towson possessed seems to have belonged to an earlier age, before the wrecking ball began swinging its way through the town in earnest after World War II.

Towson's complexion began to change when Hutzler's opened its massive store in 1952, followed eight years later by the 13-story Investment Building on York Road, which languished in recent years as a "sick building" and is now being converted into a "glass-encased modern edifice," writes Schehlein.

In 1974, the new Baltimore County library opened. Schehlein describes the building as an example of brutalist architecture, and she's not kidding.

Two year later, the massive Penthouse with its 215 condominiums began rising on Allegheny Avenue, and would eventually dominate the Towson skyline.

Schehlein drew me in on the title page with an April 11, 1912, image (taken four days before the Titanic sank on its maiden voyage) looking north on York Road at Pennsylvania Avenue.

It shows plenty of horses and buggies, with nary an automobile in sight. The only concessions to modernity are spidery telephone poles. Otherwise. this scene could have been from 1872.

Sharp-eyed readers will detect at the lower left a small crescent moon of streetcar trackage where the No. 8 line veered off York Road and carried cars to Washington Avenue on what was essentially a loop, where they paused in front of the Baltimore County Courthouse.

Streetcars bound for Baltimore and Catonsville left Towson via Chesapeake Avenue and then rejoined the York Road line.

Several years ago, the trackage that was rendered superfluous after streetcar service ended in 1963 briefly reappeared during a street-paving project.

I suppose it was divine intervention that spared the Solomon Schmuck House, a diminutive, circa-1830 Federal-style stone house just north of the Towson roundabout, from demolition. It is reportedly Towson's oldest surviving building.