Private housing community will be first exclusively for elderly deaf residents Groundbreaking comes after years of struggle

July 01, 1998|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

Grace and Jerry Lancelotta sat on their front porch yesterday with their son Jim, smiling as a university president and the mayor of Baltimore prepared to dig up their lawn.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Gallaudet University president I. King Jordan came for the groundbreaking of one of the grandest family projects in Baltimore's history: the construction of the nation's first privately funded housing community exclusively for elderly people who are deaf.

Historians and sociologists who study the deaf say the $150 million complex -- to be built over several years on the Lancelottas' little-known, 34-acre estate on Baltimore's southwest edge -- will boost the Washington-Baltimore area's role as the unofficial capital of deaf culture. Wyndholme Village will stand less than five miles from the Social Security Administration in Woodlawn, a leading employer of the deaf, and less than an hour's drive from Gallaudet University, the college for the deaf in Washington.

"I think the world will see Wynd-holme Village and imitate it," said Jack Gannon, a deaf historian who teaches at Gallaudet.

An estimated 300,000 deaf seniors live in Maryland, and no previous housing for them approaches Wyndholme Village in scale or ambition. Plans on file with the city show a complex of 928 luxury condominiums, at prices ranging from $105,573 for the smallest one-bedroom to $217,437 for the fanciest two-bedroom. In contrast, Columbus Colony in Ohio, now the nation's largest development for the deaf, has one-third as many units.

And Wyndholme, unlike deaf housing in California and New England, will be a self-contained small town, with a 90-room hotel, a conference center and retail stores -- all staffed with people who know American Sign Language.

"We're creating a community for people who speak a different language: sign language," said Jim Lancelotta, who is Wyndholme's developer.

Even with the deaf community's interest in the idea, Wynd-holme is essentially a family endeavor. Jim's mother, Grace, grew up as pTC the only hearing person in her family; both parents and her sister were deaf. Grace learned sign language but made her way in the hearing world, marrying Jerry Lancelotta in 1950.

Grace and Jerry raised six children on the Lancelottas' property, which is surrounded by a small forest that blocks the view from Frederick Avenue. One of the largest single-family residences in the city, the three-story Colonial house on top of the hill was for 50 years the site of enormous Sunday night dinners attended by dozens of Lancelotta relatives.

By 1995, however, Grace's sister needed nursing home care. But she couldn't find anything appropriate for the deaf. Grace asked her son Jim, a Howard County developer who specializes in building office parks, to research the issue. A year later, Lancelotta decided to fill the void by building Wynd-holme Village.

Little about the project has been easy. Originally scheduled to open this year, Lancelotta has struggled to secure financing.

But Wyndholme has benefited from a trend in which elderly deaf people, educated in segregated facilities, want to live again in entirely deaf communities during retirement, according to authorities on the deaf.

Jerry Lancelotta, 87, is having trouble hearing, and so he and Grace may be among Wynd-holme's first residents. "I love this place so much," he says. "I don't want to leave."

Pub Date: 7/01/98

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