Light, air revive $1 dump


Cheap but costly: It initially cost a dollar but a WJZ tape editor spent thousands more breathing new life into a down-at-the-heels Baltimore house.

June 18, 2000|By Mary E. Medland | Mary E. Medland,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The first architect that Judy Aleksalza consulted about designing her dollar home in Baltimore City's Barre Circle neighborhood told her that all of his houses had a formal front parlor.

"I'm just not a formal front parlor sort of person," said Aleksalza, a news tape editor at WJZ-TV. "So architect No. 1 went out the window."

Architect No. 2 insisted that the bathroom remain in its original location to take advantage of the existing plumbing, which was about 75 years old. Adieu, architect No. 2.

Fortunately, architect No. 3 had the right touch. Joseph Lapicki, of Lapicki Smith, understood what Aleksalza meant when she said she wanted a house filled with light and air. "We just clicked - his firm was young and very enthusiastic and took this on as one of their fun projects," she said.

Lapicki also presented her with four possible floor plans. "Each was more dramatic and radical than the other," said Aleksalza. "After spending a week looking over the various plans, I ended up going with the one which was the most radical - pretty much the only change was moving one closet."

The conversion required turning the home's four levels into seven. Before the transformation, the 12-foot-wide house was a warren of small, dark rooms connected by rickety staircases. Today it has no doors, except for the bath and powder rooms and the utility room.

But getting from a gutted home to a dream house was fraught with headaches.

Those who purchased dollar homes from the city in the 1970s had to make the place habitable within six months after obtaining permission from the city to proceed with renovations.

So, when Aleksalza purchased her home in the spring of 1976, she had every expectation that she would be moved in by the end of the year. Not so. "I finally moved in on Nov. 29, 1979 - 3 1/2 years later."

Four contractors were asked to bid on the project. While she and the architect estimated that renovations would cost about $45,000, the lowest bid came in above that amount.

Thus began a process of cutting costs. If she did the painting herself, for instance, hundreds of dollars could be saved and the process quickened. "We finally got things down to a figure that I could live with," Aleksalza said.

But after working two weeks, the contractors decided to dissolve their partnership. So Aleksalza hired one of the three partners only to have him disappear after two weeks.

"You can't just tear up a contract," said Aleksalza. "So I'd drive around looking for him at other sites - but as long as he had the contract, he had the job. It was a horrible experience and I was pretty much on the verge of a nervous breakdown."

Aleksalza already had signed away significant dollars for the project.

In the end, Aleksalza had to go to court to nullify the pact with the contractor. The city was aware of her difficulties and was willing to accommodate her need for more than six months to complete the work.

"At this point, I had to get a supplemental loan from the city. Some of the work that had been done had to be torn out and redone."

The house, which was open to the elements, was damaged by rain and ice.

Luckily, she found a contractor who "was absolutely wonderful. He was a little slower than I would have wished, but he was an absolute perfectionist."

Today, the original first floor contains an open walkway into the house. "Then you go down half a floor to the dining room, which is small, but it does have 10-foot ceilings," said Aleksalza.

On the same level as the dining room is the kitchen.

"Since I'm almost 6 feet tall, I had counters and cabinets built higher so that I could comfortably work in the kitchen," she said, adding that her closets also are built so that her floor-length caftans don't drag on the closet floor.

A couple of steps up from the kitchen is a breakfast room, which overlooks a garden that has space enough for a table, chairs and a barbecue grill.

The living room, which has a fireplace, is in the original basement. Another level was excavated to provide space for the powder room and the utility room.

Her second-floor bedroom is at the back of the house. "There's also a full balcony and an awning off the bedroom," plus a walk-through closet and a bathroom, she said.

The sparsely furnished bedroom contains a bed, television and VCR, as well as a custom-made, cube-shaped storage area. The walls are papered with gray suede vinyl.

Black vertical blinds provide privacy, and the addition of cotton duck drapes helps keep out the heat due to the room's southern exposure.

On the same level is perhaps her favorite room - the library, which has a fireplace, a wall full of books, and pillows to lounge on. "When it's snowing, I come up here, light a fire, read, and watch the snow accumulate on the skylight above," she said.

Finally, there is a guest bedroom at the front of the house on the original third floor.

While she acknowledges that such a plan means less floor space, it nevertheless works well.

"I'm single and don't need the floor space or privacy that a family would," said Aleksalza.

"And less floor space means less to clean and less furniture - this house is really for someone who has a single kind of existence."

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