There was probably a point in history when virtually every American had heard of Cumberland, Maryland. Not only that, it’s reasonable to surmise that a significant proportion of Americans had passed through it. Aside from the fact that, for most of Maryland’s history, it was the state’s second largest city (its “Queen City” behind Lord/King Baltimore), it was also the eastern terminus of the Cumberland Road, expansionist America’s first major effort to penetrate the Appalachians and open settlement up to the fertile Northwest Territory (the contemporary Midwest)—an initiative that Congress authorized in 1806. This road, successful in facilitating settlers to pass through the rugged Sideling Hill ridge, followed by the larger Allegheny Mountain Rage, to a temporary western terminus in Wheeling, West Virginia (formerly Virginia), eventually earned federal support to push further into the infant states of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, earning it the prestigious title of the National Road. But Cumberland was the launchpad—already a minor, burgeoning city two centuries ago.
Founded in 1787, almost two years before the ratification of the US Constitution, Cumberland quickly ascended to function as a capital of sorts to the American interior, positioned as it is in the western reaches of one of the thirteen original colonies—about 120 miles from Washington DC, upriver along a Potomac that rapidly attenuates from mighty to measly as it stretches westward, cleaving ever more sinuous hills and mountains, each jagged turbulent kink in the river stealing a little of its vigor. The abundant rapids west of Washington DC renders most of the upland Potomac too dangerous to navigate; by the time it reaches the Allegheny Range and Cumberland, the Potomac is a fraction of its downriver grandeur. George Washington’s early presidential vision including linking the Potomac to the Ohio River Valley, prompting the development of the Potowmack Canal, of which an initial segment opened in 1795. The the eventual construction of the Erie Canal speeded the obsolesce and eventual closure of the Potowmack in 1828, after less than thirty years of full operation. However, a few years later, the first segments of the newly commissioned Chesapeake and Ohio Canal upgraded the most deficient sections of the Potowmack, allowing functionality even when water levels were low. By the time of completion in 1850, the C&O Canal linked Cumberland with Georgetown DC (a separate municipality until 1871), 185 miles downriver.
The C&O flourished for eighty years, galvanizing Cumberland’s population growth: the Queen City tripled in population from 1860 to 1890, when the US Census counted approximately 12,700 people in the city. During this same period, the already strong infrastructure made Cumberland a desirable junction for passage through the Appalachians, as well as many smaller rail spurs that helped haul coal and iron ore mined in nearby mountains. Then from 1890 to 1930 it tripled again. It even gained a bit during the 1930s, when much of the eastern half of the US faced static or even declining numbers prompted by catastrophic employment conditions during the Great Depression.
But Cumberland’s 1940 population of 39,500 represented a peak that it is unlikely ever to surpass. In the second half of the 1940s, with US troops returning from World War II to prompt an unprecedented baby boom, Cumberland anomalously started losing population. Industrial demand plummeted in the region after the Bretton Woods Conference, and despite the city’s rail and waterway advantages, it increasingly suffered from a paucity of comparable roadway access. As vehicles increasingly replaced trains as the preferred means of transportation—and heavy vehicles assumed an ever-growing role in carrying freight—interior commerce only isolated Cumberland, even when considering the National Road’s powerful historic role linking Cumberland to the west. But the C&O Canal closed at the dawn of the Great Depression; the expansion of the Pennsylvania Turnpike into some of the first portions of the Eisenhower-era Interstate Highway System favored bigger cities like Pittsburgh.
Cumberland simply got lost in the shuffle. Businesses closed and the population shrunk—never as precipitously as some of the bigger cities during the crisis decades of the 1960s and 70s, but quite badly, and Cumberland has no discernible suburban municipalities that offered a reprieve from the flight. The construction of Inter 68 in the early 1990s along much of the path of the historic National Road (hence the nickname “the National Freeway”) undoubtedly intended to stimulate economic growth by linking Cumberland to Morgantown, West Virginia, while providing an alternate east-west route that freed congestion along busy I-70 in the southern suburbs of Pittsburgh. It certainly diverted some logistical traffic away from southwest Pennsylvania, but it hasn’t yet shown any sign of prompting massive job growth in greater Cumberland, which is now one of the lowest-income metros in the county. Cumberland of 2010 had fewer than 21,000 people—a lower population than in 1910. And the latest Census show the population has dipped below 20,000. Though the US Census still classifies Cumberland as a metropolitan statistical area (MSA), it’s more of a legacy title, retaining its economic importance within its region, despite the region’s precipitous decline in prominence over the 20th century. Formerly Maryland’s second largest city, it is now only the 14th largest, surpassed by Frederick, Hagerstown, Salisbury, Annapolis, and a number of Washington DC and Baltimore suburbs.
All things considered, for a city that’s fading into obscurity, Cumberland still packs a pretty mean punch, at least empirically. It looks bigger than 20,000 people—much bigger. I’ve noted all of its mighty church steeples, but it boasts plenty of other craggy edifices from yesteryear. For motorists passing through along I-68, tracing the path of the old National Road, Cumberland represents an oasis of urbanism—at night, it’s a coruscating basin defying the surrounding uninhabited gloom. The speed limit on I-68 drops sharply where it bisects Cumberland. Freeway exits abound. Granted, it takes less than five minutes to motor through the dense settlement that is Cumberland, but it’s a huge contrast from anything else in western Maryland, and it offers far more “city-ness” than one would expect for a region that only supports one Wal-Mart. And it’s easy to surmise why it looks and feels so much bigger.
Really it comes down to just two primary reasons: a) though Cumberland has halved its population, the municipal boundaries haven’t changed much and a fair number of people still live in the unincorporated area (the metro has about 95,000 people); b) even amidst its enfeebled economic role, Cumberland has the architectural bones of a much larger city. It hasn’t changed much in sixty years, and, not having lost population rapidly through social upheaval or natural disaster, many of the old buildings endure.
The absence of any major development in sixty years yields a none-too-surprising visual consequence: even the humblest of new construction stands out. A walk just a few blocks west of downtown Cumberland along Washington Street will likely prompt the conclusion that this side of town is the “old money” district. Climbing the gently sloped road yields one home after another of increasing opulence.
From what I can tell, the locals would typically refer to this part of town as either Haystack-DIngle, Center City (an extension of downtown), or the more straightforward West Side. Incomes and home values are above the median for the area, though generally below that of the majority of Maryland. The neighborhood has most likely buffeted the regional population loss better than other parts of the city; with well-built stately homes catering to the affluent, Haystack-Dingle shows little signs of blight or decay. Furthermore, it hasn’t demonstrated a great need for reinvestment…with one striking exception.
At the corner of Smallwood Street and Fayette Street is a cluster of townhomes. They have an old-fashioned way to them. They engage the street like one might expect from a home in an old neighborhood: a very mild standoff distance from the street, a walkway that directly links the sidewalk along the street to the front doors. No curb cuts, no visible garages. They feature architectural details of yesteryear. Lots of gables, transoms, bay windows on the side, dormers on the third floor, windows spliced with muntin bars and mullions, and even quoins neatly spaced along the structural corners. I’ve rarely dropped so much obscure architectural terminology in a single sentence, but then, few other buildings have given me such reason to do so. There’s a lot going on here. All in all, these townhomes certainly more authentic looking than the single-family detached home immediately to their south:
That home with the enormous garage out front has 1997 written all over it. Not a bad house per se. It’s just way too suburban.
In most respects, this cluster of townhomes, all built within the last ten years, show greater fidelity to the Haystack-Dingle neighborhood’s character. But they aren’t likely to convince too many people that they’re historic, even if the surrounding neighborhood is quite old. There’s just no patina: the paint looks fresh, the roofs are flawless, the mortar between the bricks is still too white. And the nostalgic architectural embellishments are almost too much—not really evoking a specific decade or aesthetic era. It’s almost as though the developers threw together a bunch of features they knew were old-fashioned by today’s standards, stepped back and said, “That’ll do.”
In a city that has witnessed virtually no new construction of any type (housing or commercial) for a half-century, it’s hard to imagine these features will be sufficient to convince most visitors that this cluster of townhomes isn’t an anomaly. Perhaps more importantly, those well attuned to the construction industry will see beyond the bric-a-brac of the façade to some unfortunate but unsurprising corner-cutting:
The southern-most of the townhomes features brickwork that goes all the way back—but the next home in the series is another story.
Only enough masonry to provide a nice backdrop for those quoins. The rest of the south-facing side of the building is wood, or maybe even vinyl siding. Same with the third structure.
To be fair, I don’t think that the southernmost townhome uses overall sturdier construction materials; none of these homes features more than a partial brick sheathe. The developer wisely chose to feature brick on the portions that would get the most exposure, while those portions largely obscured by an adjacent home received the wood/vinyl. This is again obvious on the home situated right at the corner of Smallwood and Fayette streets: the side of the house is a less expensive material, but the portion facing the street—and the eyes of passers-by—is primarily brick.
But it’s not a brick house. None of them are. It is almost certainly the standard balloon frame style that American homebuilders (and homeowners) have embraced for decades—an approach that allows the construction of homes both larger and more cheaply. These homes might not stand the test of time like the massive Victorians of Cumberland’s Haystack-Dingle, but they’re easier to modify and allow middle class households greater square footage than they otherwise could afford. Such corner-cutting was probably prudent on the developer’s part; it made the homes more sellable in a tough market.
The developer made similarly strategic decisions in the back of the properties, all of which are visible when one turns the corner onto Fayette street and walks behind.
The developer and architect smartly tucked the garages into a partially subterranean hillside, then built decks above them to serve as an extra canopy. It’s very busy, almost cluttered with the chimneys and screening between homes, but still a smart way to sneak in some extra amenities. But the back side of this home offers one other subtle consideration:
An inordinately wide access road to those garages, adjacent to an unusually large and seemingly unused green space. Why so much pavement for what is little more than an alley, when the developer could have narrowed the road and placed another duplex on that yard? Well, a quick trip back to 2019’s archived Google Street View offers a hint: just three years ago, when all these townhomes were quite new, a distinguished older single family home stood on that grassy lawn, immediately adjacent to the access drive.
That old home is gone now; only the lawn remains. What happened? Just three years ago that home appeared to be in impeccable condition: immaculate white paint, a lush front landscape, and even a fountain and gazebo in the capacious side yard opposite these townhomes. It was an archetypal house of Cumberland’s gilded yesteryear. It’s hard for me to believe it fell into abandonment and disrepair over a mere three years, but it is possible that the owners, preferring the quietude of a vacant lot as its neighbor—the likely condition at the corner of Smallwood and Fayette before the construction of those townhomes–decided it was time to leave this old, stagnant city. And, after putting the old house on the market, they couldn’t find a buyer, since the rare newcomers to Cumberland might prefer newer homes and modern amenities in the charm of an old, stately neighborhood. In other words, exactly what those unnecessarily architecturally ornate townhomes most likely provide. The old white home didn’t sell. Vandals eventually caught wind that it was vacant and plundered its copper. The home became a liability, an eyesore. In time the City of Cumberland had to tear it down. This scenario seems unlikely in just three years; it’s perhaps more likely that an electrical malfunction triggered a devastating fire. Regardless, the historic home is gone at the exact corner where six blatantly obvious townhomes now stand.
It’s a net gain of five. And, for a city like Cumberland, where the population has plunged by 50% since 1940 (and even the surrounding Allegany County has lost 25% in about that same time), that may be entirely worth it. And sure. those townhomes stick out like a sore thumb. But perhaps it’s better to accentuate those five fingers, newly polished and painted? It’s all one can hope for in a city whose most defining feature in 2022 is the former National Road, now I-68—a beautiful mountain pass that only facilitates the continued exodus. Let’s hope the owners of these townhomes can keep up the appearances.