Buyer interest awakens in city's sleeping beauty

Shortage of houses in move-in condition in Mt. Vernon noted

July 06, 2000|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

For the first time in local memory, there's a waiting list to buy the huge, old houses in Baltimore's Mount Vernon neighborhood - residences in good condition, with views of the Washington Monument, sweeping staircases and butler's pantries.

The shortage of houses in move-in condition frustrates sales agents and community leaders, who would like to see more owner-occupants fill the houses that frequently are the size of an embassy or a funeral parlor.

They are also acutely aware that their neighborhood of 3,526 on the fringe of downtown Baltimore - roughly the nine blocks along the Charles Street corridor from Hamilton Street to Mount Royal Avenue, from Howard Street on the west to Guilford Avenue on the east - needs fresh money and new ideas.

"There just are not enough properties in good condition to meet the demand. Not everyone has the time or inclination to renovate a big house," said Eva P. Higgins, a 25-year resident of the 900 block of St. Paul St. who sells houses throughout Baltimore. "But some brave souls are willing to roll up their sleeves and renovate."

Long seen as a kind of sleeping beauty among Baltimore's neighborhoods, Mount Vernon is filled with marble- and terra cotta-adorned townhouses, many converted into apartments and medical offices during the 1930s and 1940s. Undoing - or eliminating these multiple-dwelling units - is proving a costly and time-consuming venture. In the past months, the renovation activity has picked up considerably, but the immensity of these projects is not for everyone. Still, some do choose to tackle a giant house.

Maureen Van Dyck, 58, who bought a former dentist's office on Park Avenue, is in her 16th month of renovation.

With two renovation contractors, she and her husband, Louis, have installed a 15-foot square, welded stainless-steel swimming pool (they call it the sink, and it's thought to be the neighborhood's only private residential pool), a loggia (an open-to-the skies, walled entertainment grotto) and a kitchen the size of a small bowling alley. The house also boasts grand parlors, a guest suite and graceful staircases, all in need of renovation. Their house might be ready by the fall. Then again, it might not.

The purchase price was $137,000 (considered a good buy for a large, distressed house here). They have spent more than $300,000 on the renovation.

Like the Van Dycks, many of those who have succumbed to the neighborhood's charms are not native Baltimoreans.

"So many people say they live in Baltimore - but they don't live in the city. They say they would never come downtown to live," said Maureen Van Dyck, who lived in Bronxville, N.Y., before moving here on a job change with her husband, a venture capital executive. "We feel it's the only place to be."

Several homes adjacent to the Van Dycks' in the 800 block of Park Ave. have changed hands in the past year, prompting community leaders to say the neighborhood is enjoying a new confidence.

In 1998, for example, there were 34 properties sold in Mount Vernon through the Multiple Listing Service, including condominiums, carriage houses and rowhouses. In 1999, there were 40 sales in the same category.

"The demand is there, and I wish there were a better inventory of properties in Mount Vernon," said Regina Minniss, who sells homes in the neighborhood and lives on Eager Street.

They point to this infusion of city dwellers, many of whom have tackled renovation projects in homes that had not seen much investment since the 1960s. Renovation budgets of $300,000 are not uncommon on streets where the well-heeled reside alongside struggling artists and day laborers.

"I celebrate every time when a house gets bought by somebody who's going to live in it," said Ruth Wolf Rehfeld, a former New Yorker who has lived on Park Avenue for 20 years.

Another Park Avenue house, long used for medical offices, was sold for $242,000 in August 1999 to Paul and Susan Warren, who reside there with their infant son, William.

"We feel like we got a steal," said Paul Warren, who runs a telecommunications firm in Fairfax, Va. To replace three full baths and three half-baths, remove old partitions and upgrade the electricity, the Warrens spent $120,000 more on the 10,000-square-foot house. The renovation took five months.

"To have this quality of property and in an overall good neighborhood would have cost us four times the price in Washington," he said.

"It's not so much that prices are up, it's that there is so much renewed interest in the neighborhood," said real estate broker Richard J. Roszel. "I have seen some very strong sales to people who had the money to live anywhere in Baltimore, and they chose Mount Vernon."

Some new Mount Vernon residents have been patient to find the right house.

"We looked for a while," said Jon Lasser, who bought a $165,000 Calvert Street house with Kathleen Ellis last month. "We have friends who want to move here, but they are still looking."

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