For sale: A palace on Patterson Park Retiring couple choose to stay in city, near 15 rooms full of their memories

November 22, 1993|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,Staff Writer

They could have moved anywhere they wanted when the time came to leave the big old house that faces Patterson Park.

Guilford.

Severna Park.

A luxury condominium at the Inner Harbor.

Anywhere.

But Ed and Eleanor Rybczynski moved two doors away.

They say they decided more with their hearts than their heads -- choosing to keep their view of the Patterson Park pagoda that Mr. Rybczynski fought to save in the early 1960s; to remain in walking distance of Holy Rosary Church where they were married in 1954 and all 10 of their children were baptized; to stay put in the old waterfront neighborhood where their Polish-American roots go back to the turn of the century.

With retirement near and all but one of their children gone, the Rybczynskis stood at a crossroads faced by thousands of middle-class families in the last three decades, a time when Baltimore's population fell from 939,024 to 736,014 as faltering neighborhoods were abandoned for the new promise of the suburbs.

For the second time in 30 years, the Rybczynskis committed to life in the city.

"This is where I grew up," said Eleanor Rybczynski, 62. "I sing in the church choir and teach Sunday school. I help with their big Polish dinners. This is my neighborhood. I guess it's emotional."

"We looked around in other neighborhoods," said Mr. Rybczynski, a 63-year-old eastside attorney. "But never seriously."

The last time Ed and Eleanor Rybczynski went house hunting they had six kids, another on the way, and space had long run out at their South Potomac Street rowhouse. Back then, in the summer of 1963, Mr. Rybczynski's lawyer friends were telling him to get out of the city.

"They were amazed that we had made a decision to stay," he said. "They believed the only place to raise children was the suburbs."

Instead, he paid $10,000 for a 19th century urban mansion at 332 S. Patterson Park Ave. with high ceilings, stained glass, marble fireplaces and Georgia pine floors. Before moving in, he spent another $11,000 to repair the 15-room house.

It would be the Rybczynski home for half of their lives.

While it wasn't easy -- drug traffic, break-ins, prostitution and litter have increased steadily and their youngest child was once mugged in the park -- the memories from 332 are the most vibrant in the Rybczynski family album.

The big front room with the 13-foot ceiling and windows that open on the park -- the room where all 10 kids took piano lessons and learned to polka -- has swayed to so many parties that people the Rybczynskis don't recognize often tell them of great times they once had there.

"People we don't even know say they've spent happy moments at our house," Mr. Rybczynski said.

On New Year's Eve, the party would begin around the Christmas tree in the front room before spilling through the house as midnight approached. Eventually, the celebration wound up on second- and third-floor porches behind the house for a grand view of fireworks -- a vista of ships, tugboats, cranes and barges spanning the harbor from the Key Bridge to the Domino Sugars sign.

"At dusk we'd see people sitting in the park admiring our house, looking in the windows when the lights came on," said Tom Rybczynski, 35, a real estate agent with the tough job of trying to unload his childhood memories for $215,000.

Expecting to miss the house more than his siblings, Tom has been trying to burn images of the good times into his memory as he gives tours of the house to potential buyers.

"I was 5 when we moved in," he said. "The third floor was vacant then, and we used to go treasure hunting up there. It was always sunny, and we'd look in all the cracks and crevices and imagine finding treasure. One of the rooms had a porthole that looked north. My brother Paul told me the house was really a ship that had run aground in Canton and they dragged it up the hill to make it a house. I believed that story until I was 7."

Children visiting the chaotic, charmed universe crowded with toys and tykes "called our home the White House because it was so big," Tom said. "They'd marvel at the ceilings -- one friend said it was like looking up at the sky."

Time to go

After three decades that witnessed gallons of spilled milk, a grove of Christmas trees from the scraggly to the magnificent, daily homework times 10 and nightly prayers times 12, Ed and Eleanor called an unprecedented family gathering last year.

It was time to go.

"We discussed the idea that one of us children ought to buy it, but none of us could afford to keep it or fill it," said Tom Rybczynski, noting that while he and many of his siblings now have families of their own, none has proved as prolific as Ed and Eleanor's.

Still empty, the old house has been on the market since April.

"Everyone says the house is too large for personal use," says Mr. Rybczynski, who said it costs between $300 and $500 a month to heat the house.

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