For more than 70 years, the 700 block of 34th Street in Baltimore City’s Hampden neighborhood has been known for its dazzling display of holiday lights. Each year, from the weekend after Thanksgiving until New Year’s Eve, thousands of Marylanders visit the block, which pays an homage to the Christmas movie “Miracle on 34th Street.”
Newlyweds Joshua Lamont and Jillian Porter knew just what they were getting into when they purchased a home on the historic block in mid-November.
“You don’t buy on this block without saying, ‘This is what I signed up for,’” said Lamont, who is the principal designer of what is quickly becoming known as “The Chanukah House.”
Despite closing on the home just one week before Thanksgiving, Lamont said he wasted no time ordering loads of decorations from Amazon, prioritizing the block’s historic tradition. “We actually had all the lights up before we even moved in,” he said, hardly believing his own words.
For Lamont and his wife, the move represented a significant change in seasonal lifestyle. “It’s something else,” he said, noting that even simple things, like easily finding a parking spot or enjoying some peace and quiet, can’t be taken for granted during the holiday season.
In addition to the crowds, sounds and hustle and bustle of 34th Street in December, Lamont said the dressing of the house is in and of itself a new challenge. “I’ve never decorated for Chanukah in my life,” he said, noting how impressed he was with the ease his neighbors strung lights and erected large, lawn-filling sculptures.
Hillary Strilko has lived on 34th Street since 2009 and is the facilitator of the “Miracle on 34th Street in Hampden Hon” Facebook page. “I used to always make people laugh saying, ‘I’m the Jewish girl on the Christmas block,’” she said. “Now I have company.”
Strilko not only is pleased to have new Jewish neighbors, but also is blown away by Lamont and Porter’s prompt adherence to the long-standing tradition: “I think it’s awesome they went so all out, especially since they decorated just days after settling on the house.”
Although Strilko is Jewish, her home is not adorned with Chanukah ornaments, but rather with dog-themed decorations. Each year, she raises money for local animal shelters and rescues in honor of her pit bull, Roo, who was diagnosed with cancer during her first holiday season in the house. “I wanted to do something to honor his memory and make a difference in the Jewish spirit of tikkun olam. We’ve raised over $120,000 since I started it in 2010.”
Strilko said that although the block might traditionally be thought of as Baltimore’s “Christmas block,” 34th Street residents have never made the block feel exclusive.
“The decor has always represented the interests and beliefs of the residents of each home,” she said. “The block’s residents have become more diverse, so it makes sense the decorations are now reflecting more diverse interests and beliefs.”
Despite only being in its first season, The Chanukah House has already made history for Baltimore’s Jewish Community. On Dec. 14, Pikesville native Zephan Blaxberg proposed to his girlfriend, Mollye Lipton, in front of Lamont and Porter’s home.
Blaxberg had several ideas for places to propose to Lipton but finally decided on The Chanukah House, in part for its photogenic aesthetic, but also because of its sentimental value for his family.
“It was a significant area for me to propose because when my family immigrated to the U.S., one of their first businesses was located on The Avenue [36th Street] just up the street,” Blaxberg said.
Blaxberg has always enjoyed visiting Hampden, even during the holiday season. He finds the addition of such a grand representation of the Jewish community only fitting.
“I think it’s great that a Chaukah House popped up on a traditionally Christmas block,” he said. “Baltimore has a very large Jewish community so it’s nice to see a holiday that occurs around the same time as Christmas being represented.”
Lamont said that while the response to The Chaukah House has been overwhelmingly positive, he has noticed an instance or two of irritation from 34th-Street-as-a-Christmas-haven purists. But when skeptics roll their eyes, Lamont only smiles back. “I knew there’d be [some resentment]. I’ve got a 7-foot bear holding a dreidel and a 4-foot menorah, fully lit up. … It’s nothing I’m not used to.”
Growing up in Pikesville, Lamont said he often visited 34th Street as a child, captivated by the bright lights and ornate decorations. Still, he noticed the Jewish community wasn’t as prominently featured on the historic block.
“For me, it meant a lot to have a chance to light up the house, specifically with a Chanukah theme,” he said. Providing a bold, colorful home for Jewish children to identify with became one of Lamont’s goals. “[Jewish kids] will be able to say, ‘I have a house now on this block too. I can be part of this famous thing in Baltimore.’ For me, it’s meaningful to be able to be that for those kids.”
Connor Graham is a local freelance writer.