Pauline and Stelios Spiliadis offer a new twist for those who go against the tide of urban flight and stake their claim in rowhouse Baltimore.
They are not young newcomers rediscovering the joys of urban living. They didn't spend weekends running to hardware stores, taking on projects that led to even bigger ones until they were living in a construction site, their tools in the bedroom, the walls ripped out.
No, their son, Dimitris, did that. They just got sucked into the back draft of their son's adventure and eventually abandoned their Mount Washington home and their good jobs to throw themselves fully into an urban renovator's adventure. Right when their lives should have been hitting a plateau of stability, they gambled as if they were two kids who had nothing but a big future waiting for them.
In the past three years, Stelios, 60, and Pauline Spiliadis, 56, helped their son resurrect a nearby Fells Point alley house. Then they went a block away to convert an abandoned general store into a critically acclaimed restaurant -- The Black Olive -- and now the creme de la creme, they've restored their own Fells Point home.
Two homes and a restaurant.
It all started four years ago, when Dimitris was looking for an
Don't rent, said his parents. Buy a fixer-upper for cheap, invest some sweat equity, and watch the value go up.
For $20,000, Dimitris found a nightmare on Bethel Street, an alley street that attracts interior decorators who like big challenges in small spaces. At the time he was a 24-year-old teacher at the Children's Guild.
"That was the only house I could afford, in a neighborhood in which I could feel comfortable," Dimitris said.
Dimitris had difficulty qualifying for a conventional mortgage; that's when he turned to Kopernik Federal Savings Association on Eastern Avenue. A local bank, Kopernik has been specializing in creating homeownership in the Fells Point/Highlandtown area for 74 years.
L Jeffrey Collier, the bank's vice president, likes rehabbers.
For him, renovating demonstrates a renewed faith in urban living.
"When I see that, it makes you feel pretty good about your job," he said.
As it would turn out, Kopernik would back each of the Spiliadis projects.
For Dimitris, the alley house was the perfect project -- not overwhelming even though the conversion from a forgotten relic to a cozy bachelor's pad would require immense effort.
"You couldn't see one brick," he said. "You couldn't see any wood. Everything was laminated or covered with 10 layers of wallpaper representing all periods of Baltimore wallpaper."
Experience in short supply
While Dimitris had great expectations, he had no idea what he was doing. His father, who tried to lend a hand, had about the same amount of experience -- none.
It was time to bring in a contractor to help out.
"I would do all the physical labor and he would do all the skilled work," Dimitris said.
Together, they took crow bar and chisel to the walls, the plaster, the floorboards, ripping out everything, wading through clouds of dust, reassuring one another that somehow they were going to rebuild this thing.
"For me, though, doing that rehab with Dimitris as a father was one of the most gratifying experiences," Stelios said. "The bonding that was created in the process, oh, God."
Stelios remembers working alone one day at the house while his son went to a baseball game.
"I stayed behind still working and all of a sudden I take off some of the plaster and behind it I discover a fireplace. Oh, man, I couldn't wait until Dimitris came home."
Today, Dimitris' house has a fireplace in every room. With its exposed ceiling, bricks and tiny corkscrew stairs, the house has a rustic tree fort feel. The kind of place where a bicycle hanging from the rafters is expected.
A closer look
While spending the months doing rehab, the Spiliadises began to see Fells Point as insiders.
They met neighbors, shopped at the markets on Broadway and -- probably most importantly -- they started seeing all the other renovation projects in progress. They saw first-hand that these "weekend contractors" were honing their skills through trial and error.
"I've been to Fells Point as an outsider, but experiencing Fells Point as an insider was a real thrill," Stelios said.
In 1996, the Spiliadises began a part-time catering business.
At the time, Pauline Spiliadis was a manager at the Enoch Pratt Free Library and Stelios was a state administrator with the Department of Human Resources. But the favorable response to their catering encouraged them to go further and open up a restaurant with Dimitris.
First they had targeted the Mount Vernon area, but then they came across an empty grocery store on Bond Street in Fells Point. As they peered through the old windows they instantly envisioned a quaint Mediterranean restaurant. Getting the building to actually adhere to their vision would be quite a trick.