The shell theory

Revival: A new-fashioned revival is transforming the interior of a former church in historic Annapolis.

February 24, 2002|By Charles Cohen | Charles Cohen,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

John Pilli Jr. was back at it again.

He stood at the end of a dock and looked back at the three puny townhouses on Back Creek. Given that they were in Eastport, just across Spa Creek from historic Annapolis, the three houses were worth about $600,000.

Pilli knew some builder could take these townhouses and transform them into a luxurious hideaway by the water - but doubted it would be him.

You see, Pilli, an Annapolis-based developer since 1978, isn't your ordinary builder. Subdivisions don't really interest him. Cul-de-sacs are passe. Instead, give him something unique, something that your average developer doesn't do.

Give him a 12,000-square-foot former church, and he'll turn it into three luxury condominiums with exposed beam ceilings, three-story lofts, private elevators and century-old stained glass craftsmanship.

Such is what Pilli is doing at Parish House Condominiums, a retro-fitted 105-year-old former church at the corner of Maryland and Prince George streets in historic Annapolis where tiny shopkeepers' houses rub shoulders with Colonial mansions.

Being creative is commonplace for Pilli. Three years ago he developed 5 Compromise St. - four duplexes across from the City Dock on the Annapolis waterfront that ranged from 3,200 to 3,900 square feet.

What he did on Compromise Street was build the shell for each unit, sell it for $470,000 to $650,000 and leave the interiors for the purchasers to build out and design as they pleased. Final prices of the homes topped out between $750,000 and $1.2 million.

Pilli's church transformation has stunning potential even without the Annapolis address. But being a block from the State House, two blocks from the Naval Academy and three blocks from Annapolis' famous City Dock makes the property more of a "find."

The exterior of the parish house with its Victorian Gothic Revival architecture has a historic ambience that caps off a block of stately homes. The 3,000 square feet on the first floor of the former church will be reserved for a commercial use that has yet to be determined.

The three condominiums will feature living rooms with ceilings as high as 28 feet and, of course, these latest offerings of luxury don't come cheap.

Pilli is charging $335,000 to $430,000 for a model stripped to studs for walls with no kitchen or bathroom fixtures, not even the electricity or plumbing installed. Pilli is offering a shell, a shell with promise.

Pilli said a good portion of the buyer's market may not want to be bothered with the work involved in turning a shell into a home, but a select number spring at the chance of overseeing the interior work, especially in a space with the interior charms of an old church.

"I would rather work with the buyer to develop the property than to do it on my own," he said. "It ends up being a better finished product."

There's also a financial incentive for Pilli to offer shells and then consult with buyers during the rehab. His construction costs get paid when the buyers go to settlement, which releases Pilli from his construction loan.

When the homes are completed, Pilli estimates, the buyers will have paid a minimum $600,000 each.

Even before the shells are completed in the church project, Parish House has reservations on two of its three residential units, and the first-floor commercial space also has a prospective buyer.

Elizabeth Finkle, a neighbor and former member of the Annapolis Historic Preservation Commission, always felt that the church would be ideal for residential use.

"It required a creative person to create living and commercial space," she said

Previous changes

It turns out that the church had been retro-fitted several times before Pilli got hold of it.

The church was built in 1897 by the Methodist Episcopal Church. It was then used by the First Church of Christian Science and was renovated in 1953 and again in 1963.

In 1998 the church sold the building to Annapolis-based USinternetworking for $700,000, which used it as a training center and conference facility. But when the company fell on hard times it put the building up for sale and Pilli bought it for $650,000.

Barbara Jackson, a real estate agent for O'Conor, Piper & Flynn ERA, who sold the building, recalls standing in the pews and listening to Pilli and his architect describe how the chapel could be converted into living and retail space and still fit in with a street of brick walkways and slate mansards.

`I was just amazed'

"After they tore out the inside, I began to see it," she said. "I was just amazed."

She said Pilli takes a personal interest in his projects, so much so that he becomes friends with the buyers after the project is over, "which is fairly unusual for a builder."

Jackson, who has been in the business 30 years, said finding a larger historic space in the heart of Annapolis is rare, but it requires a mixture of imagination and risk to convert a church into a mixed residential and commercial use.

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