Otterbein is one of the few surviving residential neighborhoods located near the original founding of Baltimore City. Today, the neighborhood is best known as one of America's most successful attempts at urban homesteading. With its renovated older housing, compatible new infill housing, and a location near the Inner Harbor, Otterbein has become one of Baltimore's most desired residential neighborhoods.
Otterbein’s architecture provides excellent examples of Baltimore's earliest housing types, and retains many distinctive characteristics of 19th-century design, such as Flemish bond brickwork, original cornices, and original storefronts. The style and character of extant buildings is reflective of the diversity of the neighborhood that has played an important role in local history.
With its location near the waterfront, the early residents of Otterbein were directly involved with the port-related activities that influenced Baltimore's growth and development. They included wealthy merchants and industrialists, as well as laborers in maritime trade and mechanics. This was a radically and economically integrated area, as were most 19th-century Baltimore neighborhoods with upper- and middle-class whites living on the main streets and African Americans and poor whites living in small alley housing.
After World War II, the neighborhood began to deteriorate, mirroring the decline of the shipping and transportation industries of the Inner Harbor. By the 1970s the neighborhood had severely declined. Most of the Otterbein properties were purchased by the city, ready to be cleared for the proposed route of Interstate 95. When the interstate plans were modified, the city was left with blocks of vacant rowhomes. The city went forward with a bold experiment: a lottery that awarded each house to a person who was willing to renovate and live in it. The winners paid one dollar for the shell of the house they had won, and were offered low interest loans for renovation. The city invested in capital improvements, including new underground utilities, streets, streetlights, trees, and sidewalks. The program was instantly successful. With the energy of almost a hundred homesteaders, the city was able to turn the ruins of an old neighborhood into one of the most beautiful and successful neighborhoods in Baltimore.
Things to See in Otterbein
- Old St. Monica’s Church (126 W. Hill Street) — Built in 1867, the church was used a tire warehouse when the neighborhood was slated for demolition in the 1970s. The church was converted, and today enjoys a new life as four spatial, light-filled condominiums.
- Hermitage Park (S. Sharp and W. Hill streets) — This small neighborhood park boasts a giant old tree known as the Frederick Douglass Memorial Tree. It is reported that during the Civil War Frederick Douglass made an important abolitionist speech to the citizens of Baltimore under the branches of this tree.
- Narrow Rowhouse (131 W. Lee Street) — At just a little over eight feet in width, this rowhouse is one of the narrowest in Baltimore.
- Old Otterbein United Methodist Church (112 West Conway Street) — Built in 1785 by Jacob Small, Sr., this is the only house of worship constructed in Baltimore in the 1700s that is still active as a church today. Old Otterbein is the mother church of the United Brethren in Christ. The denomination’s successor, the Evangelical United Brethren, merged with the Methodist Church in 1968. The church was restored and rededicated in November 1977.