School auditorium is now an apartment


August 11, 1991|By Linda Lowe Morris

You might think the worst -- fire or flood, earthquake o tornado -- hearing that Wayne and Ruth Thaler Carter live in a high school auditorium.

But details are what make a difference here.

Instead of being the unfortunate recipients of rescue relief, they're living by choice in the auditorium of the building that was originally the old Southern High School, converted seven years ago by Baltimore architects Hord, Caplan and Macht into very modern apartments, now called Harbor Hill.

"From the outside it's very classic high school architecture. And in the stonework it still says Southern High School," says Mrs. Carter. "But as you enter, you don't get a sense of its educational use."

What you do get a sense of is space. Although every trace of high school architecture disappeared behind new white walls and wall-to-wall carpeting, what's left are the large rooms, the high ceilings and enormous windows.

"The windows here were apparently the street entrance to the auditorium," she says. "And they're huge. The center one is more than 9 feet wide and something like 14 or 16 feet high. And the side ones are almost 6 feet wide and equally high."

She and her husband have filled them with plants, stained-glass pieces and whimsical mobiles. "Without all the stuff in the windows they look even bigger and they overpower the room," she explains.

Three years ago Mrs. Carter (actually she was Ruth Thaler back then) was a dedicated urban Washingtonian with no thought of moving to Baltimore. Although her apartment in Adams-Morgan was a little too small -- as a free-lance writer working at home, she was cramped for office space -- her only plan was to move someplace around the corner.

One day while here in town for a conference, she stopped by to visit a friend who was living in the apartments made out of the old Southern High School on Federal Hill and -- just out of curiosity -- asked the manager to show her a few of the units. "She showed me this one last and I took one look and handed her my checkbook and said, 'I want this apartment.' "

In less than a month she had moved in. Within a year she had met and married her husband, a steelworker at Bethlehem Steel, and now they both share an enthusiasm for filling the apartment with pieces of furniture and mementos that each have a personal meaning for them.

Her favorite colors are pink and purple. "Luckily Wayne doesn't mind," she says, "I guess he doesn't because the pieces that are pink aren't a real feminine pink. They're more subtle shades, more like a dusty rose."

The pinks and roses have been balanced with antique furniture in dark woods and subdued floral fabrics on pillows and upholstered pieces. The antiques are pieces that they have carefully collected over the years -- first separately and then together.

"Wayne has an incredible eye for stuff. In shops he notices things I look right past. I never noticed that piano until he dragged me over to look at it," she says nodding her head toward an ornate piano that divides the living room from the dining area.

"The shop was going to gut the insides of the piano and turn it into a bar. So he likes to think of it as something he rescued. It has the original brass work to hold the candles and the original linen in the upright part behind the fretwork. The company that made it went out of business in 1898, so it's at least that old."

Their apartment, a standard two bedrooms and two baths, has a unique layout. It is spread out over three levels. You enter at the top level where a landing gives enough space for a foyer. There Mrs. Carter has her collection of Asian collectibles and framed antique prints. But the space also gives them room for a closet, a space to hang bags and umbrellas and a closet for coats. Also on that level are the second bedroom, now used as Mrs. Carter's office, and a bath.

Mrs. Carter, who has been a professional writer since 1977, works here at home producing newsletters for non-profit organizations and writing articles for magazines. Her office has a large loft-type opening overlooking the living and dining room.

"It's wonderful for a study because that cut-out wall gives you a wonderful sense of being in a very open work area. It has enough of a view to keep you from feeling closed in but not so much that you feel distracted," she says.

Down a flight of stairs is the main level of the apartment with the living and dining areas; the kitchen, which has a pass through into the dining area; and a utility room with the washer and dryer. Another flight of stairs leads down to a small area they use as their library and television room, their bedroom and the master bath.

Throughout the apartment Mrs. Carter has hung large framed prints of photographs taken by her husband. "He's real modest. He wouldn't display them if he was left to himself. So I'm the one who creates the Wayne Carter gallery," she says with a laugh.

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