When home is historic Diversity: There are 22,000 buildings in Baltimore designated as historic, and people are living in a great many of them.

June 09, 1996|By Jana Sanchez-Klein | Jana Sanchez-Klein,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Say "historic house" to many people, and they might conjure up an image of an antebellum mansion with graceful staircases and marble-floored ballrooms -- something out of "Gone With the Wind," perhaps.

Glamorous images aside, historical homes are not always mansions. Basically, they are just old.

Among them are houses in need of major renovations and houses located in older neighborhoods -- for good or bad.

"I read mostly Victorian-era novels. A lot of times what I read I can imagine taking place in this house," says Meredith Clark, 29, who lives with her husband, Vincent Liu, 32, and their extended family in an 1880s-era house in Reservoir Hill.

Clark, a research analyst at the University of Maryland, and her husband, a Baltimore police officer, purchased the 4,000-square-foot former mansion on Madison Avenue three years ago when his parents were arriving from Calcutta, India, to live with them.

They needed lots of space, and, at $75,000, this historic house was a bargain.

At the other extreme is the housing stock in Federal Hill. Once home to dockworkers, these more modest homes tend to be very pricey. "It's difficult to buy even a shell of a house that needs gutting for less than $250,000," in Federal Hill, says Bob Merbler, who develops historic properties in that neighborhood.

Diversity is an important word when talking about historic houses in Baltimore, if only because there are so many. There are 22,000 buildings in Baltimore designated as historic, 90 percent of them houses. Each of these houses is set within, and contributes to, a neighborhood that has been designated as historic by either the National Register of Historic Places, or by the city. A few neighborhoods are both National Register historic neighborhoods and Baltimore City historic neighborhoods.

It's no accident that many of these districts are the areas of the city that are thriving, says Romaine Somerville, executive director of the Society for the Preservation of Federal Hill and Fells Point. Designating a neighborhood as historic "generally stabilizes the neighborhood and encourages folks to come in and invest money in private property," Somerville says.

Aside from being in a historic district, a house is "historic" because of four other contributing factors, Somerville says: What happened in the house or who lived there.

The quality of the architecture.

The state of preservation.

The age of the building.

"It doesn't have to be designated to be a historic house; it just has to have those qualities," Somerville says.

Most real estate agents say it's "location, location, location" that sells most houses, and Cindy Conklin, who sells a big share of Federal Hill's historic homes, says that's the case with historic homes as well.

The Federal Hill housing stock is not particularly fine raw material, says Conklin, a Realtor at O'Conor, Piper and Flynn. Although most houses in Federal Hill have been renovated several times, "what drove the renovation was the location," Conklin says.

Not all renovations add value to a home. If a renovation obliterates the original architectural features, it could decrease the home's value. Features such as high ceilings, marble fireplaces, crown moldings, stained glass and interior columns make a home more attractive to buyers.

While most homeowners want to retain these features, they almost always want to enlarge and modernize the kitchen and add more closets and bathrooms.

Restrictions on renovations are more stringent for homeowners in Baltimore City historic districts than they are for nonhistoric houses or for houses designated by the National Register.

Interior renovations are unregulated, except by the normal building permit process.

Within Baltimore historic districts, exterior renovations facing the street, however, must be approved by the city's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP).

"If you are in a national district, you can paint your home purple, put up satellite dishes to your heart's content, and as long as you don't seek tax incentives, you can do it with-out oversight," says Bill Pencek, deputy director of the Maryland Historical Trust, the state's historic preservation agency.

Of course, homes that are in both a National Historic district and a federal urban renewal district -- such as those in Federal Hill and Fells Point -- face oversight by local preservation agencies.

Local, state and federal tax incentives are available to help offset some of the costs of renovating a historic home.

Clark has spent a good deal of her spare time in the past three years renovating her house. She has peeled paint from walls and radiators, sanded and varnished the hardwood floors, and replaced rattling windows in the rear of the dwelling.

She has also spent more time and money hiring contractors to repair plaster on ceilings and water damage caused by a faulty roof.

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