Developer blends preservation, low-income housing


April 01, 1993|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Staff Writer

If there isn't enough decent, affordable housing in Baltimore for everyone who needs it, don't blame Bettyjean Murphy.

Since leaving her real estate sales job three years ago to become a full-time developer, Ms. Murphy has worked with others to create 50 residences in former School No. 142 on Walbrook Avenue and 44 residences in the former Louisa May Alcott School No. 59 on Reisterstown Road.

At 11:15 a.m. today, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Housing Commissioner-designate Daniel P. Henson III will cut the ribbon on her third school conversion and first solo effort. It is Barrister Court, a $2 million, 32-apartment complex created inside the former Barrister Charles Carroll School No. 34 at 1300 Washington Blvd. in Washington Village.

The Colonial Revival school stood vacant for more than a decade before city officials chose Ms. Murphy's Savannah Development Corp. over seven other groups that bid to recycle it. Now it's almost fully leased, and residents start moving in Saturday. Ms. Murphy fills a niche by pursuing a combination few others have explored -- historic preservation and low-income housing. She believes Barrister Court provides further evidence that derelict buildings are the key to solving the city's housing crisis.

"Many people still think of historic preservation as little old ladies sipping tea," she said. "I see it as a means for social change."

Built in 1896 and expanded in 1930, School No. 34 was vacated when a new school opened across the street in the 1970s. The building was to be demolished for new housing but financing fell through. Not even the community wanted to save it because it was an eyesore.

"It's a classic preservation case in which a seemingly worthless building has been, using the programs available, successfully adapted so it contributes to the community," said William Pencek, chief of the Maryland Historical Trust's Office of Preservation Services.

"One of the great things about Bettyjean Murphy is that she firmly believes people with low incomes do not have to live in aesthetically or historically devoid boxes," Mr. Pencek added. "The approach of so many people in the development community and even some in the low-income housing community is to tear out and strip down and provide clean, efficient, bare living space. Bettyjean believes that if historic elements can be saved, then they should be, because people with low incomes appreciate them just as much as yuppies."

Ms. Murphy said she is less interested in painstaking restoration than in providing decent, affordable housing. "The scale and character and historic continuity of the neighborhood -- that's what I think preservation for people of moderate means is all about. When you have these big, vacant buildings, it just pulls the whole neighborhood down."

The developers saved whatever they could to make the building livable. Outside, they created a landscaped courtyard near the entrance. Inside, former classrooms became five efficiencies, 21 one-bedroom apartments and six two-bedroom apartments. Monthly rents range from $250 to $350.

The residences are bright and spacious, with high ceilings and large windows. Halls are yellow and gray, with purple and turquoise trim. As she did at Alcott Place, Ms. Murphy saved chalkboards and installed them in hallways as message centers for residents -- a reminder of the building's past.

Cho Wilks & Benn was the architect. James W. Miller Inc. was the general contractor. Joy Owens of Owens, Barbera & Co. was responsible for interior design. Tri-Churches Housing Corp. lined the tenants. Funding came from Maryland's Partnership Rental Program.

Barrister Court will be turned over to the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, the same agency that runs the city's troubled public high-rises. Walking through the building, Ms. Murphy couldn't resist noting that this kind of housing is much more humane than the high-rises. "I've tried to stress that historic preservation is for everyone," she said. "I see myself as being in a kind of ideological guerrilla war, trying to push this view. The best way to make a point is to show what is possible."

Watercolor landscapes at architects' gallery

Watercolor landscapes from around the world are featured in the second annual Watercolor Exhibit at the American Institute of Architects' Gallery, 11 1/2 W. Chase St. in Baltimore, through April 24. The Baltimore Architecture Foundation will hold a reception for the exhibit from 5 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. today.

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