If the hundreds of people who walk along the the 300 block of N. Charles St. every day would look up instead of down at the sidewalk, they'd be in for a surprise.
First they'd realize that above the block's storefronts are some of Baltimore's finest old houses. If they looked closer, they'd notice four window boxes with brightly colored flowers on the second floor above The Silk Road Restaurant.
The passers-by would be amazed to find out that behind those four windows, above the bustle and traffic of Charles Street, is a huge, imaginatively designed loft residence.
"I live in the equivalent of a 2,700-square-foot ranch house on downtown Charles Street," said Kemp Byrnes, owner of 334-336 N. Charles St.
But his home is a world away from a rancher. While many people who have returned to the city have chosen to live in rowhouses, Byrnes is one of the very few to opt for a loft in the middle of downtown. He had owned the buildings for a few years when his tenant's lease ran out.
Instead of renting it out, Byrnes decided to live there himself. His real estate company was next door in the adjacent space. His commute was reduced from 20 minutes from Ruxton to 20 seconds.
"At first, I was a little fearful about doing this, but it turned out 10 times better than I imagined," Byrnes said.
Instead of tearing out the space and starting anew, Byrnes used the partitions installed by his former tenant, Alan Shaivitz, a space planner by trade.
With Shaivitz's help, Byrnes created an exciting living space. Angled glass walls that once housed a conference room became a formal dining room. A freestanding partition within the room acts as a wall for art on one side and storage on the other.
A former office that looks onto Charles Street now is a family room housing a comfortable sofa where Ricky, a Maine coon cat, likes to nap. The four large windows with divided light transoms in the 14-foot-high space are original.
"Because this is a historic district, I left the windows intact and installed thermopane windows behind them," Byrnes said. "Not only are they tall, but they all had to be custom made."
The new windows not only improve energy efficiency but act as an acoustical break. The constant flow of traffic on Charles Street is barely audible.
In the middle of the loft is a large barrel-vaulted skylight that floods the living room with light.
"The skylight is great, you can watch the clouds drift by and at night it's filled with stars," Byrnes said. He added a large fireplace in the living room as well.
Another angled-wall area where the receptionist once sat now is a spacious kitchen. A cutout in the wall opens up the kitchen to the living room. Another major design element is a dark blue, exposed air-conditioning duct that runs from the front of the loft to the rear.
The loft has an amazing amount of space that seems to go on forever. Behind the kitchen is his wife's office. Fritzi Byrnes, a managing director with EMG -- a real estate due diligence company -- works out of their home when not traveling.
The rear portion of the loft was an open workroom, so Byrnes had partitions erected to create a master bedroom, guest room and two bathrooms. The master bedroom, with its high ceilings, is large and elegantly furnished. Many of the new and existing partitions do not go all the way to the ceiling, enhancing the open feel of the space.
"When I'm away on the road, I can't wait to get back to my home," Fritzi said.
The Byrneses' loft is in the Cathedral Hill Historic District, so named because of the Roman Catholic Basilica of the Assumption, the first cathedral in the United States, in the next block. "The Cardinal is a neighbor of mine," laughed Byrnes.
Along with other religious structures, such as the First Unitarian Church and St. Paul's Episcopal Church, the area has a rich array of architectural styles that made it a prestigious place to live in the first part of the 19th century.
Byrnes is continuing a tradition that started in the 1850s when professionals in the neighborhood lived above their offices. The wealthy residential area developed into a premier shopping district on Charles Street after the Great Fire of 1904, which destroyed the lower part of downtown.
The Byrneses married in January. Both empty-nesters, they left their homes in Baltimore County to adopt a city lifestyle.
"It's different from anything I was used to, I had never lived in an urban environment," she said. "It's been an adventure that turned out better than we ever thought."
'A real adventure'
The couple knows that to some, the city can be a scary place. "When we invited members from the church we still attend in the suburbs to our home, it was a real adventure for them," Kemp laughed, "like they were going to a Third World country." The guests they entertain are always impressed with their new home. On St. Patrick's Day, more than 50 people were easily accommodated at a party in their home, from which they watched the parade.
From their family room, one can sit and watch the world go by on Charles Street.
Kemp Byrnes pointed to his four window boxes and laughed, "Compared to the 3 acres I had in Ruxton, these are a lot easier to take care of."
Pub Date: 6/14/98