Artist paints herself into beautiful corner


Dreamer: A retired college professor fulfills her ambition to paint in an urban setting.

April 20, 2003|By Marie Gullard | Marie Gullard,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Artist Helen Beckstrom's Reservoir Street house is unmistakable in this historic Mount Royal Terrace portion of Reservoir Hill, where turn-of-the-century brick and brownstone homes dominate the neighborhood.

Her window frames are painted in soft purple, while the door and its frame are a bright red, coordinating with the earth-toned hues of the rich brownstone exterior. The Jones Falls Expressway lies just yards away, but the traffic is heard but not seen in this Baltimore neighborhood just south of Druid Hill Park.

Beckstrom welcomes visitors at a double-door entrance that leads into an open space of exposed brick and 12-foot ceilings. Classical music plays on the radio, as cat Peter surveys the new arrivals and a borzoi pup, August, clings to her side.

The dimensions of the home -- 23 feet wide by 108 feet long -- provide 3,500 square feet of living space. The home's large living area is a combination of the former living room, dining room and hallway.

The home is a partial rowhouse. It's attached to other properties at the front but gives way at the halfway point to a small alley or courtyard. This allows for side windows to provide sunlight.

Beckstrom has lived in her three-story Victorian for six years. Until two years ago, she rented the home. When the option to buy the circa 1880 house presented itself she jumped at the chance, paying $82,500 for it.

"I have always wanted to live in a city and do art," Beckstrom proclaims. She has a doctorate in art sociology and is a retired professor of women's studies at Sweet Briar College near Lynchburg, Va. A painter, Beckstrom works with oil on canvas. Some of her art is mixed media, and she also does watercolors.

With her five children grown, Beckstrom decided it was time to follow her dream.

The home's ample studio space met her specifications, but renovations were needed. Beckstrom turned to the city for assistance, securing a low interest loan as part of the Healthy Neighborhoods Program. She also used Maryland historic district tax credits to realize a 20 percent rebate on her income tax.

"I could not have done it without the city's help," Beckstrom acknowledges, having invested over $100,000 into renovation so far.

She initially focused on the kitchen at the rear of the first floor.

A central island, with a speckled soapstone double sink, dominates the room. Maple cabinets with a vanilla glaze flank a vintage gas stove -- an Estate Heatrola from the 1940s.

A gas fireplace, one of five operating hearths in the house, provides warmth and ambience. A new exhaust system and neutral wood flooring complete the homey picture executed by the design company, Revisions.

This is "a wonderful entertaining kitchen," Beckstrom says. "And we have a very social neighborhood."

Friend Andrew Coletta agrees: "This is a great party house."

During the course of kitchen renovation, Beckstrom opened a wall revealing a back staircase to the second floor, where Beckstrom has a guestroom. The room is decorated in textured walls, with an inlaid wood chifforobe dresser and another working fireplace.

Farther down the wide second-floor hallway, a large bathroom boasts a marble inlaid floor, clawfoot tub and 1930s enameled faucets. The walls in the hall are graced with Beckstrom's artwork that features female family members.

A bedroom-turned-office (with yet another working fireplace) features a bookcase on wheels separating the room from the master suite. Five keyhole-shaped windows and frames were restored by Crown Lumber of Baltimore.

A wide staircase to the third floor is crowned with an old-fashioned, string-operated skylight. This floor is devoted to her art.

The back room is her working studio, the window and door frames painted bright yellow and the corners loaded with canvasses ready for her planned series of fish fossil paintings. The front room is her "Red Room," a museum-like area with wood floors painted in hot pink and a 7-foot arched window flanked by two smaller ones. The windows open out to a wrought iron rail balcony.

The basement extends the length of the house and offers ample storage. A huge hearth suggests this floor once housed a kitchen.

"There are so many possibilities in a big, urban house," she says. "I like a space I can fill, one that fits my lifestyle."

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