Architect creates space for handicapped people

January 10, 1995|By Alisa Samuels | Alisa Samuels,Sun Staff Writer

Andre G. Fontaine has designed a lot of buildings in his quarter-century as an architect -- too many to count, he says. But an L-shaped building opening in 1997 likely will stand out from the rest.

The East Columbia-based man is donating his time to design Maryland's first assisted-living apartment building for the physically disabled. When completed, the building in Columbia's Kings Contrivance village will be among only a few in the nation.

Taking design cues from housing for the elderly, the planned 10,000-square-foot building on Eden Brook Drive will help 15 young to middle-aged disabled people live semi-independently.

The two-story building called St. Matthew House will feature an elevator, 15 efficiency-size units and communal lounge, study, kitchen, living room, and dining room. Among the accommodations for the disabled will be wide hallways, nonslippery floors and showers equipped with bars. There also will be an extra unit for overnight staff.

"Up until now, anybody who was handicapped and needed assistance didn't have too many alternatives other than living in nursing homes," the 50-year-old award-winning architect said last week.

"It's really our attempt to allow people with disabilities to live a regular life as much as possible. It would be nice if we could do more of them."

Mr. Fontaine designed his first house for the disabled eight years ago in Columbia for a man who lost use of his legs in a car accident.

The adaptability of his designs is important in helping people, Mr. Fontaine said. "Everyone's handicap is going to be different."

Flexible designs are not that unusual, he said, noting that disabled people -- like the able-bodied -- want their homes built to suit them. "I think you need to be especially sensitive to the client's needs and not assume anything," he said.

Mr. Fontaine received a bachelor's degree in architecture from Clemson University in South Carolina in 1968. He came to Columbia in 1976 after working in Washington, D.C., and Hagerstown. Four years later, he opened his office here, specializing in the lucrative and competitive field of residential architecture.

He said he's an optimist, which may have helped him survive the recession during the late 1980s and early 1990s.

"I like helping people, solving a problem and giving people a wonderful environment to live in," Mr. Fontaine said.

"It does sound like he puts a great deal of thought into the quality of life for the residents, which is fabulous," said the Rev. Raymond Velencia, pastor of the Orthodox Church of St. Matthew.

His parish, which meets at Amherst House next door to the planned apartment building, established a nonprofit group called St. Matthew Housing Development Inc. to oversee the project.

Maria Turley, a St. Matthew parishioner who has multiple sclerosis, a chronic disease affecting the central nervous system, asked Mr. Fontaine to design the apartment building.

She said she had a dream in May 1994 that God was telling her to build a home for the disabled. She told Father Velencia about that dream and the pair proposed the idea to the parish council.

In August, the 160-member parish voted unanimously to pursue the project.

The nonprofit group worked with the Rouse Co. to get 1 acre of land originally set aside for the Kings Contrivance Interfaith Center. Concerned about space for its planned interfaith center, the Columbia Religious Facilities Corp. wasn't too eager to give its approval, though.

But, Mr. Fontaine allayed the group's fears when he produced site plans that showed the remaining 3 acres would be enough for an interfaith center.

In November, the religious group voted to slice 1 acre so St. Matthew could purchase the parcel for $30,000.

Eligible for up to $580,000 in federal funding, the St. Matthew group is getting its applications ready, Mr. Velencia said. The group already has gotten a $40,000 grant from Start-Up, a Baltimore-based foundation that provides seed money to groups.

"I've got to give them a lot of credit for taking that on," Mr. Fontaine said.

His first taste of being an architect came as a boy growing up in Vermont. "It's all because of a treehouse I built as a kid," he said, recalling that the treehouse had two rooms, a loft and "real operating windows."

When he was older, Mr. Fontaine pursued construction work while in high school and college.

"The whole process fascinated me," he said. "Architecture was just the extension of the construction industry."

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