A call for painted ladies Brushwork: Charles Village residents are hoping a more colorful neighborhood will be a better place to live.

September 08, 1998|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

San Francisco's "painted ladies" have come cross- country to Charles Village -- in the form of a playful Victorian house-painting contest in North Baltimore.

San Francisco is nationally known for the creative color schemes that have long decorated its houses overlooking the bay. The nickname painted ladies was supplied by 19th-century architect Andrew Jackson Downing, who thought the multicolored houses resembled facial features.

Traditionally, Charles Village, with its handsome turn-of-the-century housing stock, has been more staid in its sturdy shades of red brick and brown paint.

But that is on the brink of changing, because of a $20,000 grant from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a Baltimore-based nonprofit group dedicated to helping disadvantaged children. The grant will fund the contest and two planned for next year.

The theory is that enhancing the streetscape creates a healthier, happier urban village for children and adults in North Baltimore.

Makes sense, if you ask Steven Rivelis, 44, who lives in a tall house -- with a pink door -- on St. Paul Street. "We want to make a declaration that this is a community that's thriving," he said.

"It's not just paint on a house," Rivelis said, as he walked along nearby streets Friday. "Bold colors say this is a good place to work and play."

First prize is $3,000 for the most vibrant porch-front facade. Homeowners without front porches can compete for a $2,000 prize for the most colorful facade. The best front door in the 100 square blocks of the Charles Village Community Benefits District wins $500. The deadline is Nov. 1. At least three colors must be used.

The contest was the inspiration of Rivelis and Dawna Cobb, 42, another Charles Village resident. With more intuition than scientific studies, they wondered whether a contest would work as a strategy to make Charles Village more pleasant: safer from crime, with slower traffic and cleaner streets.

"Necessity breeds all kinds of creativity," said Cobb, an assistant attorney general who painted her porch blue and yellow.

She and Rivelis, a community development consultant, took their contest proposal to K. C. Burton, director of Baltimore relations for the Annie E. Casey foundation, and convinced him of its merits as a beautification and revitalization strategy. "It's a neighborhood transformation approach," said Burton, who believes the program could serve as an innovative model and an organizing tool for other city neighborhoods in Baltimore and elsewhere.

Explaining how it advances the foundation's mission, Burton said, "We're looking at how to make interventions in transitional neighborhoods that include disadvantaged communities."

Charles Village is known for an unusually rich racial and economic mix and is home to the Johns Hopkins University's Homewood campus and three public elementary schools.

Rivelis said the aim is to attract 100 contestants in the three contests: one this fall and two next year, in the fall and spring. Judges include Donna Crivello, who owns a coffee shop on St. Paul Street, and Mary Pat Clarke, former City Council president.

"It works on so many levels," said Rivelis, noting that while porches, windows and doors are private property, they are in the public domain.

People are beginning to participate by sprucing up their houses, following their fancies in what Rivelis considers a good variation of keeping up with the Joneses.

"I was plugging for green, she was plugging for salmon," said Steven Allan, 39, referring to his wife's color preference for painting their home in the 2900 block of Calvert St., a project he has undertaken.

At first Allan, who serves on the city's heritage board, had reservations about the contest. "It's not historically correct, but it's fun and brightens the house up," he said.

Up the street from him, Beverly Fink, a nurse, climbed a ladder to continue her work-in-progress in colors she called poppy red, a "Provence" yellow gold, and teal.

"This is my thing," Fink said.

Scouting for contest participants, Rivelis pointed out a streetscape of four side-by-side houses, each with a colorful design, one of which belongs to Lisa Simeone, a radio personality.

"Your house sings with other homes," Rivelis said.

Because Charles Village is in the geographic heart of the city, with the main north-south thoroughfares cutting through its residential streets, the contest's benefits will go well beyond its borders, he said.

Color in the village is not a new concept. A longtime resident, Grace Darin, 84, once lived in a rowhouse on East 26th Street on a block known informally as "Pastel Row." Darin, who coined the name "Charles Village" and lives in an apartment in the area, remembered the colors of the street she lived on for 30 years: "We had blues and pinks and yellows."

She was ahead of her time.

Pub Date: 9/08/98

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