Louisa May Alcott school converted to housing for low-income elderly

December 16, 1990|By Edward Gunts

Developer Daniel Henson originally thought he might be working up until New Year's Eve to finish construction of Alcott Place, the 44-unit apartment complex for the elderly that has been created inside the former Louisa May Alcott elementary school at Reisterstown Road and Keyworth Avenue in Lower Park Heights.

To qualify for historic preservation tax credits for 1990, the $4.2 million project had to be completed and an occupancy permit had to be issued by the end of the year -- less than six months after a construction permit was granted.

But Mr. Henson and his partners finished the conversion with several weeks to spare -- and celebrated Friday with a grand opening party. Much of the credit for finishing ahead of time, he said, goes to superintendent Tom Clark and the rest of the construction crew at hisfirm, Struever Bros, Eccles and Rouse.

"This is one of those kinds of buildings that, when we got in and got working on it, we realized how fabulous it really is," he said. "The guys who worked on this project really fell in love with the building and made it happen."

Alcott Place is one of the first housing projects funded by the Community Development Financing Corp, the non-profit organization that Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke set up in 1989 to help create affordable housing for low-income residents.

It was designed for residents 62 and over, and as of last week occupants had been identified for all but 9 of the apartments. The first residents are expected to move the day after Christmas.

Designed by Otto Simonson and built in 1910, the building was an elementary school until the early 1970s, when it became a regional headquarters for the city elementary schools. It stayed that way until 1982, when it was closed and used for storage. The Schmoke administration sought bids from developers last year and selected the joint venture of Struever Bros., Eccles and Rouse and Carter Development Corp., headed by Bettyjean Murphy. Cho Wilks and Benn was the architect for the conversion, and construction began last summer.

Mr. Henson said the building's exterior was sound and the development team made only minor modifications.

"It's been painted up, touched up, the best way we could. The major change is that all the windows are new. They look old, but they're new."

Inside, the four floors of classrooms have been converted to apartments, eight to 12 on a floor. When the cloakrooms were taken out, each set of two classrooms became three living units. The main entrance is on the Keyworth Avenue side, and a sun room has been created above it.

On a recent tour of the building, which has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Mr. Henson pointed to features of the old school building that have been saved, such as the tin ceilings in the halls, the original classroom doors, and the original maple flooring that has been retained in individual units whenever it was in good enough condition.

One special touch that preserves the memory of the school is that many of the original blackboards have been moved from inside the classrooms and placed on the hallways. Once residents move in, chalk will be available so they can leave notes to each other and otherwise use the blackboards.

Each residence has about 650 square feet of living space and is equipped with an intercom and an alarm system, with two pull stations that can be used to summon help in case of an emergency. The developers used water-source heat pumps, Mr. Henson said, because they believe they give off "warmer heat." At the request of the Maryland Historical Trust, they also saved wainscoting from the cloakrooms and used it to panel the sun room.

The developers obtained funding from a variety of sources, including the city of Baltimore; the Enterprise Social Investment Corp.; the CDFC; the state's Community Development Administration; Maryland National Bank; and the Baltimore Regional Council Development Corp., a subsidiary of the Baltimore Regional Council of Governments.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is subsidizing rents under its Section 8 program.

Mr. Henson calculated that the cost of the project works out to $92,000 per unit, which he considers high but justified.

"$92,000 a unit is more than I would have wanted to spend on it, but the only other alternative is to tear the building down and leave it."

He said he primarily stays away from rehabilitation projects but couldn't pass this one up.

"I went to school in a building very similar to this -- School 144 at Mosher and Wheeler streets. It brought back a lot of memories to me when I first walked in, and I've really enjoyed this job. . . I guess I fell in love with the building, too."

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