Rescue mission turns mansion into a home

January 12, 1992|By Carleton Jones

The home of Jean Harvey Hepner at 931 Fell St. is the latest stop in a preservation saga going back nearly a half a century. The Hepners have old house fix-ups in their bones.

When Jean Harvey grew up in the Kenwood section of North Chicago, she lived in a huge 1890 house filled with fine furnishings. When she married in the mid-1940s, right out of college, she began a national saga of travel as the wife of a medical man, the late Dr. Walter Ray Hepner Jr., a nationally known pediatrician.

Their first rescue occurred around 1950, when the Hepners spent $8,000 on a pseudo-Georgian gem of about 1890 on Galveston Island, Texas. Dr. Hepner had been called in to head a new hospital center at the coastal city.

Then, in the late '50s, having moved to a better medical assignment, the Hepners took on "Springdale," a defunct roadhouse that had served in the 1820s as a way station on the ancient Boone's Lick Trail through central Missouri at Columbia.

The structure that was to become their house had legendary status among generations of University of Missouri students as a stop on the beer-blast circuit.

"They were tearing down the old Columbia Baptist Church then, and it was huge," Mrs. Hepner recalls. "We bought 12,000 bricks at a penny a brick, cleaned every brick ourselves and terraced the place with the bricks.

"Most of the things we did were virtually free, but we had to pay for the plants to decorate the lot," says the homeowner.

The house on Fell Street, by far the biggest challenge in 40 years of restoration effort, is pure Philadelphia, a huge, four-story affair of elegant 1790s brickwork and dormers.

John Steele, a prominent shipbuilder who once had seven lots in the waterfront district, was the original owner. Mrs. Hepner describes the architecture as "transitional late-Georgian becoming Federal."

But it was a wreck when the Hepner family -- which includes a daughter and three sons -- started repairs in 1967. "The walls were festooned with sagging wallpaper. It had been a tenement house." And the area soon would be threatened by mega-bulldozing plans to send a connecting harbor superhighway through the heart of Fells Point.

There is some evidence, Mrs. Hepner says, that 931 Fell St. and a back wing (now converted into garden apartments) were onetime headquarters for the Levi Strauss Co., the world-famous blue-denim firm, which she believes to have originated in Fells Point.

Fixing the place has been a matter of "scraping away surfaces and doing things piece by piece as I can afford it," Mrs. Hepner says. The renovators bent over backwards to preserve authenticity. Though the house is heated and air-conditioned, there is hardly a hint of it. Utilities have been cleverly concealed to avoid spoiling room proportions. Ducts run up through small wine and service cabinets that were built into the fireplaces. Painted, faux-marble strips were installed in floor moldings to make light plugs all but invisible. As fireplaces in the residence are restored, they are paneled and hearthed in gray-blue Pennsylvania marble, still available and identical with the originals.

Relatively untouched as yet in the home are the magnificent double parlors of the first floor with the two largest of the home's six fireplaces. These huge fireplaces once exhibited handsome low-relief classic paneling. "It's still made by the same company that made the originals," says Mrs. Hepner. "I'm going to Britain to get them," she adds.

The mansion's kitchen has a canted ceiling that rises to 13 feet. A giant hanging chef's ring big enough for a small hotel supports specimens from the Hepner copper pot collection, and along one wall is a double row of pewtered and silvered mugs.

Through the years, the Hepners acquired distinguished antique furnishings for the home, including an immense grandfather clock made in Fells Point about 1790 by William Elvins. The Hepner dining room includes a rare Baltimore sideboard of early 19th century origin and a table fitted with 10 Federal-era chairs, six of which are original. The table itself once did duty in the original "Druid Hill" mansion, now part of the northwest park of the same name. Part of the table was burned at some point, and it was repaired in a smaller dimension than the original.

Throughout the house is Delft china from Holland, much of it modern but some antique, including an elaborate four-piece garniture -- a matched collection designed to be displayed together -- in the home's drawing room. Over the drawing-room mantel is an oil portrait of a woman of about 1700, judging by her coiffure and costume. The setting includes a 30-year-old lemon tree with real lemons. "It'll go outside in May," says Mrs. Hepner, who maintains a bricked-in garden in front of the apartment wing.

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