Polly Bart has always worked for other people: as an urban policy analyst in the Carter administration, a professor of city planning in College Park, a commercial real estate broker with Coldwell Banker.
But last year she launched a business of her own, a real estate brokerage set up to sell apartment buildings or to convert apartments in historic buildings to condominiums. And even though it's not exactly the best of times for such an endeavor, she says she's enjoying it immensely.
"I never had as much fun in my life," she said during a recent tour of 700 Cathedral Street, one of two historic Mount Vernon-area mansions that she has converted in the past year. "These are marvelous buildings to work with."
Ms. Bart is a "fee developer," a new breed of entrepreneur who doesn't use his or her own money to complete redevelopment projects.
Instead, she arranges with owners of existing properties to work with them and do what is necessary to upgrade them and market them as condominiums, including coordinating the legal work needed for condominium documents. She uses the owner's funds to complete the necessary improvements, and takes a fee for her efforts.
The first project of Ms. Bart's new business, Investment Properties Brokerage, Inc., was the conversion of the former Italian consulate at 6 W. Mount Vernon Place, an 1859 residence that was transformed to seven condominiums priced from $103,000 to $300,000.
The conversion was so successful that she moved down the block this year to convert 700 Cathedral Street, a four-story building constructed as a private home for the Decatur Howard Miller family in 1854.
The architect was John R. Niernsee, who also designed the Hackerman House at One West Mount Vernon Place, which is now being restored to house the Asian arts collection of the Walters Art Gallery.
Although 700 Cathedral Street was converted to doctor's offices in the early 1900s and most recently used as an apartment building, many of its original features are still intact, including wrought iron balconies, marble floors, ornate fireplace mantels and a central spiral staircase with a stained glass skylight.
Ms. Bart's work has ranged from installing a new heating and air conditioning system to restoring the ornamentation in individual residences, including some elaborately painted walls and ceilings, and plaster and ceramic moldings. While maintaining the building's historic character, she also gives buyers a chance to alter individual residences to meet their needs.
"It doesn't seem as if you can just walk in and design it" for prospective buyers, she said, "What makes them buy is really great quality and customizing -- when they get to pick the light fixtures, tiles, doors, built-in bookcases, faucets, paint colors and otherfeatures, so it's right for them.
"People's need for space is very individual," she added. "We try to use every corner in a way that is exactly what they need. And these old buildings have a lot of interesting corners. They design the whole unit with us, including the location of the kitchen and bathrooms. That's what's unusual."
Born in Peterborough, N.H., Ms. Bart has an architecture degree from Harvardand master's degree and doctorate in city planning from the University of California at Berkeley. Besides paying attention to the architectural details, she also takes an analytical, macro-level view when selecting projects to work on.
She said she particularly likes the Mount Vernon historic district because it has been the focus of a number of improvements in recent years, including the Hackerman House conversion; a series of ongoing improvements to the park; a second theater at Center Stage; and the new Waterloo Place apartments at the east end of the square.
Both 700 Cathedral Street and 6 W. Mount Vernon Place have clear views of the Washington Monument and are within easy walking distance of the many shops and restaurants along Charles Street. But the buildings themselves are just as important as the location, Ms. Bart said.
"I don't think condominium conversions work just anywhere," she said. "You can't have anything wrong with them. Nothing. There
can be no negatives. And there has to be some outstanding quality, something that has a touch of elegance. It has to be very exciting as a way of living. And this [west] end of the square has that."
Ms. Bart said Baltimore is fortunate because the level of craftsmanship in the 19th century was so good, and the city still has a good stock of recyclable housing.
"At the time these houses were built, Washington was a swamp city," she said. "But Baltimore was already a bustling port city, and it had a wealth of craftsmen who produced these wonderful buildings that have been sitting here since then."