Right off Falls Road in Baltimore’s North Roland Park, between an auto mechanic and a chiropractor’s office, sits Poplar Hill Road, a narrow, serpentine stretch of pavement barely wide enough for two side-by-side cars.Broken concrete gives way to gravel, and then a visitor arrives at a stately country house that serves as the grand dame of the neighborhood amid a collection of house styles that dot the hill – from mid-century modern to sprawling mansions. The oldest house on Poplar Hill, which sits on three-plus acres with a meandering stream and an assortment of wildlife, had a name befitting its stature and view: Happy Hills.
Dating to 1840, the house was purchased in 1922 through funds raised by Hortense Eliasberg (Kahn at the time), a 22-year-old Johns Hopkins graduate student who saw the need for a place for children too well to be hospitalized, but too sick to go home. Eliasberg bought the property as a refuge and place of recovery for sick Baltimore children suffering the ills of the time: rheumatic fever, asthma, tuberculosis and malnutrition. Eliasberg called the home Happy Hills Convalescent Home for Children.
“Ms. Eliasberg knew that most of these kids were going back home to appalling conditions like no water,” said Meg Fairfax Fielding, a freelance writer, expert on the property and author of a forthcoming book chronicling the children’s home history through the decades. “She understood that if these kids could go somewhere for a couple of weeks, it would break the cycle of getting well, going home and then back to the hospital again. She figured out that the best medicines were sunshine, fresh air, exercise, diet and discipline.”
With five bedrooms and three baths, Happy Hills could accommodate 20 children at a time along with doctors, nurses and staff needed for their care. The children’s home remained on Poplar Hill Road until its capacity could no longer keep up with the demand, and it relocated in 1930 to a larger home a couple miles away on West Rogers Ave., where it remains today with a new name: Mt. Washington Pediatric Hospital.
Nearly 100 years later, in 2018, writer Julie Bykowicz and her husband, engineer Thomas Foulkes, were drawn to the house for the same reason as Eliasberg. They loved the open space, the view and potential. The pair had previously spent seven years renovating a home in Bolton Hill and lived there until they sold it in 2018 for $200,000 above what they paid for it, but less than they put in it in renovation costs, Bykowicz joked. “That house was in rough shape. We felt restoring it to its stately manner was our civic duty.”
Bykowicz works in Washington, D.C. as a national political reporter for the Wall Street Journal and held a similar position with Bloomberg News in Washington before that, and said she and Foulkes were at a crossroad on where they would make their home. Would they continue to rent or buy in DC, or move back to Baltimore where housing prices were more affordable? Ultimately, the tug back to Baltimore won out.
“I kept getting jobs in D.C., but I found myself looking at houses in Baltimore and this house popped up on Redfin. The view was what drew us,” Bykowicz said. The couple settled on the house in 2018 and moved in in 2019, after minor renovations, including the kitchen, a costly replacement of windows, and updating the master bathroom and later the deck, which runs the expanse of the house. “We love a good project, but this house didn’t need as much work as Bolton Hill because there were previously good owners,” she said.
While most of the house retained its 1840s character, including reportedly being one of only 100 houses in Baltimore still on a septic system, Foulkes, whose engineering specialty is mechanical, electrical and plumbing design, was able to blend the old with the new with modest renovations. The couple’s goal, they said, was to keep the charm, but make it better.
Bykowicz said neither she nor Foulkes knew the entire history of the house, other than that a few writers previously lived there. They later learned its lineage as Happy Hills Children’s Convalescent Home. “I’m a writer and I like telling a good story,” she said. “I knew Happy Hills had a good story.”
Connecting Happy Hills to Mt. Washington Pediatric Hospital
Bykowicz said she and Foulkes had begun seeing marketing materials about the Washington Pediatric Hospital’s 100th anniversary of the hospital, which is this year. They decided to reach out to see if the hospital would be interested in offering her house for tours. “I said I know that this is a weird cold call, but I am a friendly owner,” she joked. “I said if they needed anything, I’d be willing to help.”
The hospital accepted the offer.
Andy Wayne, marketing and communications director for Mt. Washington Pediatric Hospital, received Bykowicz’s voicemail message as he was planning centennial activities.
“She said I live in this house and I thought I’d reach out to you. She said she was open to having the house be part of the celebration,” Wayne said. “I sat in my office and was totally surprised and excited. That was incredibly gracious. I immediately said we would take her up on the offer.”
Wayne said the hospital has arranged a few tours of Bykowicz’s house, including one that was especially meaningful: for Ann Eliasberg Betten, a member of the hospital’s foundation board and the granddaughter of Hortense Eliasberg. Betten said she had never been in the house.
“Growing up, I always thought the white mansion on the hill in Mt. Washington was the original location for Happy Hills,” Betten said. “It wasn’t until five or six years ago, when the hospital was researching its history that they realized there was the other location for Happy Hills,” Betten said.
“I was amazed. I knew that the property existed, but I didn’t know that the original house would still be standing and recognizable. I was impressed how all of the previous owners have been respectful of the house and maintained a lot of the original architectural details. I was also grateful that Julie would open the house to us. I think of my grandmother all the time with awe and admiration, that she was able to create what she did in her short life. It gives me chills up my spine,” Betten said.
For Bykowicz, she said she and her husband are glad to serve as a connection from the old to the new hospital. “It’s a beautiful space,” Bykowicz said. “It’s great to be a part of the story.”
Mt. Washington Pediatric Hospital is celebrating its centennial this year. A jointly owned affiliate of The University of Maryland Medical System and Johns Hopkins Medicine, the hospital provides care for more than 8,500 patients annually.
Here are the illnesses treated at MWPH throughout the years.
1920s 1930s 1940s 1950s 1960s 1970s 1980s 1990s 2000s 2010s 2020 to Present
Wonderful story …
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