There's no place like home Roots: A theater couple are transforming the historic Latrobe House on Mulberry Street into their dream home -- a place where they can put down roots

Urban dreamers rewarded.

December 27, 1998|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN STAFF

He's a musical director and orchestra conductor who has lived in New York and on the West Coast.

She's a singer and actress who hails from South Dakota.

As theater professionals, they often travel. So when they got married 2 1/2 years ago, Kevin and Karin Farrell decided to buy a house where they could come home for the holidays and put down roots.

That's how they came to own one of Baltimore's most historic residences, the Latrobe House on Cathedral Hill.

"Our business is the theater," Kevin Farrell explained. "We spend a lot of time touring this country and Europe, and we wanted a home base -- a place we can call home."

They typically work in the same production, so they can have time off together, Karin explained. "We'll be here a lot. Anytime we have a break," she said.

The Farrells are the latest example of a trend in which individuals are buying former commercial properties near downtown Baltimore and fixing them up as residences.

While city housing officials have been working with developers who want to transform older office buildings into multifamily apartment buildings, individual buyers are acquiring smaller commercial properties to convert into single-family dwellings.

The Latrobe House is one of two on West Mulberry Street that recently have been sold to owner-occupants. Others have been acquired along Charles and Hamilton streets.

"I think some nice things will go on in this part of town," said Eva Higgins, a veteran real estate agent with Hill & Co., who helped the Farrells in their housing search. "It's awfully exciting hearing about it."

The Farrells have worked on such productions as "Fiddler on the Roof," "Cats," "Peter Pan," "Evita," "The King and I" and "Carousel." Kevin also has been a musical director at Radio City Music Hall in New York.

Kevin said he never lived in Baltimore full time but has performed here and has friends in the local theater community, such as Hope Quackenbush, former managing director of the Mechanic Theatre, and David Simon, former head of Baltimore's School for the Arts. In the mid-1980s, Kevin said, he briefly owned a house in the 1000 block of N. Calvert St.

"Some people want to save whales," he said. "I want to save old houses."

Kevin said he and Karin began looking at properties in Baltimore this year and fell in love with the Latrobe House, an 1831 building that stands south of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the first Roman Catholic cathedral in North America.

Constructed by John Walsh and William McQuinn, the four-story house is part of a row of three early 19th-century houses on Mulberry Street that originally were identical and have retained much of their architectural character.

Its first owner was John H. B. Latrobe, the son of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, architect of the Basilica and the nation's Capitol. John Latrobe lived in the house on Mulberry Street until 1848, when he sold it for $10,750. While there, he designed the portico for the cathedral, which was completed in 1865. He was also a judge of a literary contest that bestowed its 1833 Short Story Prize in the house. It went to a then-unknown and penniless writer named Edgar Allan Poe.

The building became the showroom for Fallon and Helen Furniture and Interiors. The retail space was downstairs and the upper floors were used for furniture upholstery and repair.

After the store closed in the 1980s, the building was sold to a couple that planned to convert it into a bed-and-breakfast operation. They agreed to let it be used temporarily for the filming of a movie, "Washington Square," but did not move ahead with the bed-and-breakfast operation after the filming.

The Farrells bought the building this year for $72,500, according to city land records.

They say they were attracted to the building by its proximity to the shops and restaurants along Charles Street and to cultural hTC attractions such as the Walters Art Gallery and the Peabody Institute.

They also liked the spacious rooms and original details in the house, including ornate fireplace mantels, large pocket doors and parquet floors. They also liked that the building can be modified to meet their needs, while maintaining its historic flavor.

They plan to turn the front rooms on the first floor into a salon for musical recitals and parties. The original kitchen with its large brick hearth will be restored, and the garden in back will be replanted.

The upper floors will be a home office and living quarters for the Farrells. They have hired Frank Gant to be their architect for the restoration, and Karin Farrell is doing the interior-design work.

The Farrells say they like the view from their north windows, which face the Basilica and its clock tower. "I feel a little like Mary Poppins on the third level, in that I could just grab my umbrella and go," Karin said.

The "Washington Square" crew improved several rooms with vintage wallpaper and ornamental trim. Because the improvements involved only portions of rooms, the Farrells say, there is still much to do.

They are tackling the project slowly and moving furniture in gradually. One treasure they plan to bring is a 1924 Knabe piano with a hand-carved mahogany case. "It was made in Baltimore, and it belongs back in Baltimore," Kevin said.

Although they have just begun, they already like being in the heart of the city.

"The architecture has a great deal to do with it," Kevin said. "It's the only city I've seen where you can walk for blocks and see it the way it was [a century ago]. The grandest part of Baltimore is still here. It's all still here."

Pub Date: 12/27/98

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