So Who Built Our Houses?

Anatomy of A Rowhouse
Throughout this blog, we’ve often said things like “the folks who built our houses” or “the builder decided to do XYZ”. We’ve been coy. It’s time to talk about Frank Novak, the man who built the 2300-2400 blocks of Eager Street. This post is largely indebted to Mary Ellen Hayward’s essential book, Baltimore Alley Houses.
1906map

A 1906 map showing development creeping east across Patterson Park Ave. The 2300-2400 blocks of Eager Street do not yet exist, but occupy the space directly below the Union Railroad tracks (Image courtesy old.library.jhu.edu)

Frank Novak was born in Baltimore on March 17, 1877. The Novak family had come to America just two years before Frank’s birth, and had made a home at 420 N Castle Street after living briefly on N Chapel Street. By the time he was 13, young Frank was working as a carpenter’s apprentice.
In 1899, Frank was a 22 year-old carpenter working under August Hanneman, a German builder. Hanneman and Novak had been building two-story houses along the 700 blocks of Patterson Park and Madeira Streets. Sadly, Hanneman died when the block was half-finished and Novak became thrust into the role of builder.
madeira

The 700 block of Madeira, where Frank Novak took over from August Hanneman in 1899 and began a long career as a rowhouse builder

Novak wasted no time, buying the rest of the block from Hanneman’s widow and then buying 35 lots along Madison, Madeira and Collington Streets. He sold his first house in July of 1900 and then moved on to the 800 blocks of North Patterson Park and Collington, eventually acquiring and building upon dozens of blocks to the north and to the east.
In 1904, Novak built 14 homes on Bradford for $10,000 total, or around $700/per. Three years later, he built 22 homes on Montford between Ashland and Eager for $20,000 total.
We couldn’t find a direct reference to Novak building on the 2300-2400 blocks of Eager, but based on the development of the surrounding blocks described above, it seems almost certain that he’s our builder. Then there’s this brief mention in The Plumber’s Trade Journal from 1908 that seems to confirm our suspicion:

novakname

You can see that Frank Novak (misspelled “Novah”) is listed as the builder of 2321 Eager Place. Based on the construction dates of the surrounding blocks, it seems likely that the beautiful block of homes you see below was built in late 1907 into 1908.
IMG_0507
The houses on Eager Street were the nicest Novak had built to date and represent a maturation in style from the earlier houses he’d built, but are distinct from the houses he would become most famous for, the brown Roman-bricked rows you see below that fill entire neighborhoods of East Baltimore.

brownbrick

We’ll get into some more specifics about Novak’s building practice in a later post, but for now just know that Novak went on to become known as “The Two-Story King of East Baltimore,” with nearly 7,000 rowhouses attributed to him.
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