From 1901 until 1998, the Margaret J. Bennett House was a quaint and distinctly Victorian institution near the heart of Baltimore's Mount Vernon cultural district - a boarding house for single young women who needed a safe place to live while they attended college or worked downtown.
After closing because of financial problems, the elegant apartment building at 14 E. Franklin St. reopened yesterday with a different focus: as federally funded housing for 29 recovering drug addicts and women with mental illnesses.
The conversion of the building - with its gold-trimmed mirrors and Oriental rugs in the parlor, century-old oil paintings and sweeping staircase - has sparked an identity crisis for one of the city's most integrated, liberal and well-educated neighborhoods.
The women moving into the home view it as a monument to the hope that they will be able to rise above the poverty, despair and addictions that have kept them from being productive workers and good mothers.
But residents worry that their generosity in welcoming a growing number of social service agencies that help addicts and the homeless is driving away businesses and residents from one of the city's most historic but fragile neighborhoods.
It is a drama that has played itself out before in Mount Vernon. The neighborhood joined an effort two years ago to move Our Daily Bread food pantry out of its home at 19 W. Franklin St. because some said its patrons were harassing shoppers and contributing to the failure of struggling local businesses.
Steve Johnson, president of the Mount Vernon/Belvedere Improvement Association, said the neighborhood has attracted one of the highest concentrations of social service agencies in the region because its real estate is cheap enough for nonprofit organizations, and its streets are safe enough that volunteers feel comfortable.
Clustered around Mount Vernon Square are at least eight organizations that serve the needy, including a state-run halfway house on Cathedral Street for people released from mental hospitals, the Carpenter's Kitchen food pantry and Our Sister's Place shelter for homeless women and families.
"The association has been concerned about the concentration of social services here, particularly drug treatment centers, mainly because of their tendency to make the area undesirable to people who want to live and buy property here," Johnson said.
Regina Warren, 34, a resident of Bennett House, has a different concern. She wants counseling that will keep her off drugs and enable her to regain custody of her 11-year-old son.
"I wanted to stay straight, but I didn't know where to start. ... The Bennett House will help me keep on track because it offers counseling, drug testing and such a positive environment for living," said Warren, a former cocaine addict who is on probation for theft.
Warren, who has been drug-free for more than six months and works as a secretary, said she wants to obtain a college degree and become a social worker.
Steve Appel, an owner of Nouveau Contemporary Goods home furnishings store at 519 N. Charles St., said he sympathizes with people like her. But he has a split mind as he watches businesses close on Charles Street and buildings remain vacant for years.
"I'm an open-minded, liberal person," Appel said. "These women [in the Bennett House] should have a place to go, and I'd much rather see them get help than go to jail. But I hope that whoever is looking at the big picture on Charles Street sees that if we aren't careful, it could become a barren dust bowl because of all the help we're offering."
Mount Vernon residents also have struggled over how to respond to the Stafford Towers at 716 Washington Place, a 96-unit federally financed housing project near the Washington Monument that has been a center for drug dealing and prostitution.
That their efforts to deal with Our Daily Bread and the Stafford have gone nowhere - combined with the opening of the Bennett House and the New Foundations school for emotionally disturbed teen-agers at 20 Franklin St. - has made residents concerned that their neighborhood is becoming a campus for social workers and their clients.
Bennett House will be run by the Women's Housing Coalition, which provides shelter for homeless and disabled women. The organization received $3.2 million from Enterprise Social Investment Corp., Fannie Mae, the city and state to renovate the house.
The original Bennett House opened in 1901 next to what is now Tio Pepe's restaurant on Franklin Street. But it ran into financial trouble in the 1990s because of declining numbers of tenants.
Susan M. Thompson, executive director of the Women's Housing Coalition, said the housing program includes job training and computer classes. She said it will prove to be a responsible neighbor.
"We want to create productive, safe and secure housing for women and help with the revitalization of downtown," Thompson said.