New Butchers Hill family fixes up its `private hotel'

Intricate detailing gives Parisian a feeling of home

October 06, 2002|By Liz Steinberg | Liz Steinberg,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Jean-Luc Renaux says he never imagined he'd be living in what would be considered a "private hotel" in his native Paris.

To his 4-year-old son, Luc Renaux, it's a castle.

Renaux and his wife of 11 years, Kathy Helzlsouer, owned a smaller rowhouse in Canton and had been looking for a house in Butchers Hill for several years when they saw someone leaving the Charles Roehle House in the 2200 block of E. Pratt St.

Renaux caught up with the man, who was the owner, and asked if he was considering selling the house. He was. The couple asked to see the house. It had been built in 1875 and occupied by Roehle, a prominent pharmacist.

The house had been vacant for upward of 15 years, but where others had failed to find the resources to renovate, Renaux and Helzlsouer saw only potential. The plaster detailing reminded Renaux, a free-lance transportation consultant, of Paris' Second Empire apartments.

"We walked in and [knew] this was the house for us," said Helzlsouer, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health. "We could see what it could be like. ... There're just things in this house that you can never find in a new house built today."

The couple thought the area was perfect. Less than a block from Patterson Park, they could walk everywhere -- their son's preschool is around the corner, Helzlsouer can walk to work at the Hopkins' East Baltimore campus, and they can buy French bread at Broadway Market.

"One thing I wasn't going to compromise, going to the United States, was going to a place I couldn't walk" everywhere, said Renaux, who moved to Baltimore in 1994 after the couple were married.

They purchased the brick-front rowhouse for $205,000 in June 2000. The cost of restoration would surpass the purchase price.

The couple hired two Baltimore-based contracting teams -- Winner Construction Group Inc., which renovated the exterior and the two-story brick carriage house in the back yard, and J.W. Puhl Construction Co., which did the interior.

In renovating the house, they had to deal with three levels of bureaucracy, Renaux said: state, city and federal. The zone is historic in all three.

They tried to keep as much of the original house as possible. Few changes have been made to the floor plan, and much of the plaster detailing, ironwork, woodwork and wallpaper has been kept or re-created.

"We found the basement full with doors, shutters ... some pieces the contractor has never been able to match" to their original locations, Renaux said.

He added, "We approached the project with a preservationist state of mind." Although they ran into no major problems, the project took longer than expected. They moved into the house in October of last year.

On the house's exterior, Formstone has been removed to expose the original brick. The cornice has been reconstructed.

The living room is at the front of the house, with large windows facing Pratt Street. Intricately detailed, geometric woodwork with half a dozen different colored stains borders the room. Like much of the home's more unusual details, the hardwood floor is original, Helzlsouer said.

"It just needed refinishing to bring it back," she said.

The original, marble fireplace is still there, too. The room is painted red -- one of the many bright colors they chose for the interior walls.

The dining room -- probably once a second parlor -- has a plaster medallion encircling the base of the chandelier, which was brought from Prague, the capital of what is now the Czech Republic. The medallion is another house original -- it features the brightly painted busts of four women.

The room benefits from the house's placement at the end of the row -- multiple windows provide natural lighting.

There are two staircases: the main staircase, which starts at the foyer and is detailed with Victorian-style gingerbread cutouts, and the servant staircase behind it, tucked behind closed doors.

The balustrade in the front hallway consists of wood with multiple stains.

After stripping off layers of paint, "this was a nice surprise," Helzlsouer said.

Helzlsouer pointed out the textured "lincrusta" wallpaper, now painted white, that lines the staircases and most of the hallways. The wallpaper is original. In places where the original paper was water-damaged beyond repair, they found the closest match available.

The servant staircase used to lead to the basement kitchen, which is no longer there, Helzlsouer said. Now the kitchen is at the back of the house, on the first floor. The couple believes it is in the old dining room because of the fruit-motif plaster molding bordering the 12-foot ceiling.

"We had to re-create some of the molding," Helzlsouer said.

The back of the house was severely water-damaged: The windows facing the carriage house and the back yard are re-creations.

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