Homesteaders stake a claim to history


April 10, 1994|By Karin Remesch | Karin Remesch,Contributing Writer

Susan Leviton shocked her relatives when she decided to buy a house on Hanover Street in Otterbein -- especially one without windows, plumbing or electricity.

"My grandmother, who lived on Hanover Street, had spent most of her life trying to get out of the city," remembers Ms. Leviton. "Even after she found out we got the house for just $1, her only comment was, 'That's 50 cents too much,' " she said.

Like some of their neighbors, Ms. Leviton, 46, and her husband, Jeffrey Lauren, 47, both lawyers, are among Otterbein's original homesteaders. The couple "won" their house in a mid-1970s city lottery designed to entice professionals back to the city.

In return for the houses, many of which were boarded up and falling apart, the owners agreed to renovate the homes, putting them back on the city's tax rolls.

Today, Otterbein, 2 1/2 square blocks tucked between Oriole Park at Camden Yards and the Inner Harbor, has 105 renovated houses and about 100 new homes and condominiums.

Otterbein takes its name from a Methodist church built there in 1785, says William Giacofci, an original homesteader who is a lawyer and history buff.

Mr. Giacofci, 51, moved to the Eastern Shore last year, where he plans to renovate another home in Easton.

Walking through the stately neighborhood with its tree-lined brick sidewalks and cobblestone alleys, one can envision Baltimore in the 1800s: reproduction gaslights on every street, small parks and carefully landscaped gardens.

Wealthy merchants who wanted to keep an eye on ships arriving at the harbor built large three- and four-story brick homes in the first half of the 19th century, some as large as 4,000 square feet, says George Robbins, an original homesteader who is a real estate agent with O'Conor, Piper and Flynn Inc.

Smaller homes, with as little as 700 square feet, were built between the bigger homes to house working-class families and artists. The newly restored neighborhood retains this social mix though it has become more professional and affluent in recent years.

Most of the neighborhood consists of single people, families with young children and people whose children have left. Once their children reach school age, many families move away, seeking better school systems and larger homes, Mr. Robbins says.

Mr. Lauren says his family, which includes Liz, 13, and Josh, 9, remained, but the children attend private schools.

Otterbein's heyday initially ended in the early 1940s and 1950s, as families bought cars and left the crowded city for the suburbs.

More families fled when the city said it would demolish the community to extend Interstate 95 to downtown. Those plans were eventually scrapped, but by the time the city's renewal program began, most of the houses were abandoned shells, home only to rats and stray animals.

Lynn Benvegar, one of the original homesteaders, says her first vision of the neighborhood was not promising. But beneath the grime and decay she could see traces of once-beautiful Federal and Greek Revival architecture, and she was hooked.

Her three-story home has a mostly contemporary interior with ceramic floors and a greenhouse off the large kitchen, but the exterior adheres to strict historical guidelines.

Retired from her job as director of nursing for the city's health department, Ms. Benvegar, 64, has decided to sell her house and move to a retirement community.

"The house is just getting too big for just one person," said Ms. Benvegar. "But I'll always cherish the pioneering years and the people I met during homesteading."

Mr. Giacofci says, "Homesteading created a tremendous community spirit. We not only restored a house for ourselves, but also built a new community."

Ms. Leviton and Mr. Lauren's home, once a penny candy store, had to include the original storefront windows, now part of their living room. The original occupants of the three-story home, one of the larger ones in Otterbein with 3,600 square feet, probably lived behind and above the store, said Ms. Leviton.

Mr. Lauren took a six-month leave of absence from his job to act as his own contractor, overseeing the work of subcontractors.

The couple spent days hauling trash to city dumps, weeks searching for structural defects such as leaning walls and months deciding what could be saved.

The couple bought the house in 1977 and moved in the next year.

Their home, which was in better shape than many of the other dwellings, in large part retains the original ceiling moldings, random-width pine hardwood floors and walnut banisters.

The front half of the house was restored close to the original design. But in the center of house, the couple created a three-story atrium topped with skylights that fill the house with light.

Play ball!

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