Back to homes again

Comeback: Former homes in downtown Baltimore are once again serving as residences.

November 14, 1999|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN STAFF

For decades, the four-story building in Mount Vernon was used as medical offices -- first by dentists, then psychiatrists.

But when it changed hands this year, the building wasn't sold to another doctors' group, or to any other commercial interest.

It was purchased by a husband and wife from Washington who are taking it back to its original use: a single-family residence.

Although Paul and Susan Warren say they considered many different places to live, they were struck by the grandeur and magnificent appointments of the 32-foot-wide house at 829 Park Avenue, built in the 1870s for the family that ran the Knabe piano factory in southern Baltimore.

Features include a glass-roofed music room with 10 fluted marble columns; a mahogany paneled library; stained glass skylights and windows; parquet and mosaic tile floors; and 11 fireplaces -- more than 6,000 square feet of living space in all.

Because it was solidly constructed and had been upgraded over the years to meet city codes for commercial use, the building was in remarkably good condition. And it sold for the cost of a relatively conventional house in the suburbs -- $264,000, according to the listing agent.

"We just keep pinching ourselves," said Paul Warren, 41, president of Vaxcom, a telecommunications firm in Northern Virginia. "How are you going to find a property like this that's not in the multimillions?"

The Warrens are at the forefront of a trend in which individuals are purchasing longtime commercial properties near downtown Baltimore and fixing them up for residential use.

In many cases, the commercial buildings started out as luxury homes for wealthy business owners. Today's urban pioneers are restoring the houses to their original condition.

In the process, they are dramatically changing the character of corridors such as Park Avenue and Mulberry Street by making them more residential in nature, as they used to be.

"The circle is coming complete," said Ethel S. Braun, president of E. G. Rock Realty, a specialist in Mount Vernon property and the firm that listed the Knabe residence. "People are moving back into the area. It's wonderful for the city."

Although the reclamation trend is still in its infancy, real estate brokers and agents report that over the past three years more than a dozen commercial properties that were built as single-family homes have been acquired for conversion back to residential use by people who are making them their primary dwellings.

Many are in Mount Vernon, Midtown-Belvedere, Cathedral Hill or other areas within easy walking distance of Baltimore's central business district. Constructed in the 1800s as mansions for Baltimore's elite, they contain the sort of appointments often missing from newer homes, including plaster walls, ornate moldings, built-in cabinets, gilt-edged mirrors and crystal chandeliers.

Over the years they have been subdivided to serve as offices for doctors, lawyers and others who found that the grandeur and dignity suited their practices. The first-level parlors, in particular, were perfect waiting rooms.

Now they are coming on the market again as physicians move to newer quarters in larger buildings nearby or out to the suburbs. The doctors say they want to be close to their patients and to install new computers and medical equipment, and the older buildings no longer provide the settings they need. In many cases, their patient base has moved out of the city, or hospitals with which they were affiliated have closed.

When these owners put their buildings on the market as commercial properties, they often languish for months because there isn't a strong demand for commercial space in older buildings outside the central business district.

But if the commercial market has cooled, these buildings are now receiving attention from buyers seeking large residences in the city. They value the qualities that made the homes so attractive to the families that first occupied them.

After looking in the suburbs and the city, the new owners see these old mansions as tremendous bargains, just waiting to be brought back to life. They figure that for the price of a newer suburban house -- $250,000 or so -- they are getting a quality of construction that is hard to find today.

Unlike the young urban renovators in the 1970s and 1980s, who did much of the work themselves as "sweat equity," these are highly sophisticated buyers who have a clear vision for urban living and the wherewithal to realize it.

The list of buyers includes doctors, corporate executives, investors who have done well in the stock market -- the 21st-century counterparts of the land barons and railroad tycoons who built these mansions a century ago.

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