Past a pleasant surprise for home's renovators

DREAM HOME

Restoration: Five years after buying a rundown house at auction, a couple moves in.

April 09, 2000|By Martin Schneider | Martin Schneider,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When Mabel Smith first saw the ramshackle house at 4423 Craddock Ave., it didn't look anything like a property that was once a center of black society in Baltimore.

The windows on the home were boarded up. Holes stretched from floor to ceiling. And the back yard was filled with all manner of neighborhood junk -- from washing machines to trash bags.

But beneath the years of wear, something attracted her to the vacant house, and when it came up for auction in 1992, Mrs. Smith and her husband, Walton, landed the property for $12,000 and spent the next five years renovating it before calling it home.

"We had always wanted to buy an old house and renovate it. We really didn't know about the history of the house -- it was really an added bonus," Mrs. Smith said.

The derelict property that they bought was originally home to Harry O'Neill Wilson Sr., a banker in the early 1900s for whom the Wilson Park section of the city was named. Born in 1873, Wilson was the son of the first black principal in the city school system and worked as a shoemaker until 1903, when he founded the Mutual Benefit Society insurance company.

When the company was later sold to the North Carolina Mutual Insurance Co., Wilson used the proceeds to found Wilson's Bank at Franklin and Eutaw streets and became what many believe to be the first black banker in the state.

"Mr. Wilson was a wealthy man, but got little respect. He lent the money to build the Southern Hotel and then had to go in the back door," Mr. Smith said.

Wilson purchased 1,000 acres at the corner of Cold Spring Lane and The Alameda and built himself a home in the heart of the property, on Craddock Avenue. He named the development Wilson Park and it became a haven for the wealthiest of Baltimore's African-American families.

"Wilson Park has a lot of history that people don't know, and we've learned a lot since we bought this property. Now that I have time, I'm trying to learn some more," Mrs. Smith said.

After Wilson died in the home in 1939, it was turned into an apartment building under the supervision of the estate's caretaker.

"Eventually everybody moved away and it was left vacant. They were going to renovate it, but they never did," Mrs. Smith said.

When the Smiths purchased it in 1992, the 17-room building was in need of extensive renovation in order to be livable. Most of the amenities that Wilson had added to the house including the swimming pool, fish pond, circular driveway and four-car garage had fallen into disrepair as well.

"In its prime, the home was nothing short of a mansion. We've talked to people who came here for social events in the earlier part of the century when it was the elite place to be. They were happy to see it restored," Mr. Smith said.

Mrs. Smith, a microbiologist, and her husband, a corrections officer, lived just a few blocks away from their future home for more than 40 years, often passing the old Wilson home on walks around the neighborhood.

"I was walking my dog one morning when I went past and I saw the sign that it was going to be auctioned off. I really didn't have any idea about trying to buy it or anything," Mrs. Smith said.

But she happened to be off from work on the day of the auction and decided to attend just to see who purchased the house. Before she knew it, she decided to bid and ended up as the proud owner of a piece of Baltimore history.

Her husband went to work that day not thinking anything about the home. "When I came home, we talked about it for a little while," he said, "and finally I asked, `Do I know the people who bought it?' and she said, `You did,'" Mr. Smith said.

The first step in the restoration was to bring in an architect, who recommended completely tearing out most of the house's interior. However, they were able to keep the foundation as well as the original brownstone and a few original beams.

"We wanted to keep certain things as they were," Mrs. Smith said. "We didn't want to change everything."

The floor plan of the home was redesigned during the reconstruction, in which six rooms were removed.

During the renovation, the couple decided to fill in the swimming pool and remove the fish pond, but the four-car garage will be restored in the near future. The Smiths were finally able to move into the three-bedroom, two-bathroom home in 1997.

"We're paying a mortgage after not having one for 15 years. But we're enjoying every minute of trying to fix it up like we like it," Mrs. Smith said.

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