A Hot Property

Artist Gard Jones has fulfilled his burning desire to live in a fire station.

April 27, 2003|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN STAFF

Forget any preconceptions you have about firehouses. Even before two artists transformed Engine Company 40 into a spectacular apartment and studio, the single-engine firehouse in Howard Park was unusual.

Built in 1920, the charming cottage-style structure is one of only two wood-frame fire stations in the city. Wood shingles cover its lower half, and the front features a balcony that overlooks the street. It's now painted cream and blue with a red front door -- a far cry from the normal red brick. What's more, the building has a yard around it, one where the firefighters planted a garden every summer.

Now that it's been renovated, the downstairs serves as a studio for sculptor Gard Jones and his wife, painter Chevelle Moore Jones. Upstairs are their living quarters.

Imagine a New York loft apartment set on Baltimore's Liberty Heights Avenue. In front is a small family room / home office where the fire chief's quarters once were. In back is the bedroom (where the firefighters bunked) and bath. The kitchen, dining room and living room are part of an open floor plan in the middle.

The story of how the Joneses came to own their firehouse is as impressive as what they've done with it.

In 1990, when Baltimore's fire stations were being consolidated, Engine Company 40 was closed and put on the city's surplus properties list.

A five-year obsession was born.

Gard, who also teaches at Carroll Community College in Westminster, had always loved fire stations. The first floor, he felt, would make a great studio because of the open space and concrete floor. With the oversized doors, it would be easy to move his sculptures and his wife's large canvases in and out. The second floor would already have the essentials to be transformed into living quarters.

As firehouses came on the surplus properties list, Gard, 45, investigated them. A year before he had put in a bid on one that wasn't accepted -- which was all to the good because Chevelle, 39, wasn't enthralled with firehouses and didn't like the one he chose.

"But I'm a stubborn individual," he says with a laugh. "The first one was a learning process."

Gard saw the Howard Park firehouse before his wife did. He went back to their apartment and announced he had found their new home.

"I just saw a building with our name on it," he told her. "It looks like a gingerbread firehouse."

Chevelle wasn't convinced. Not, that is, until he dragged her to the property.

"In our heart of hearts we knew we had to have it the moment we saw it," she says. "It's the perfect space for two artists."

Having it wasn't going to be easy. But the couple loved it so much they started coming over to the empty firehouse once or twice a week to mow the lawn or pick up trash -- long before they knew it would be theirs.

The approval process was torturous. First they submitted a bid, competing against two other people who wanted the property. This time around, Gard knew enough to hire a grant writer. And as artists they could illustrate their proposal visually.

Angelo Hernandez, an economic development officer for the city's housing department, was impressed.

"We liked their proposal for several reasons," he says. "They would be owner-occupants, which helps stabilize a neighborhood and generates tax revenue. And we liked their design. The place is a showplace. They kept the architectural personality of the property and personalized it."

The Joneses were awarded the station in 1991. That meant they were given right of entry and 180 days to get the financing and permits necessary.

Unfortunately, the lending institutions they approached weren't so convinced as the city was that the couple's project was worthwhile. The 180 days stretched to months and then years. The Joneses continued knocking on doors (and mowing the grass and picking up trash at the firehouse) until finally, with the help of Hernandez, they got the financing they needed.

And money was only part of the problem. When commercial properties are turned into residences, the new owners have to deal with details like removing the firehouse's underground fuel tanks. But in the summer of 1995, with financing, permits and approvals in place, the couple was finally able to start the renovation of the second floor.

Gard did the demolition work, like getting rid of the dropped ceiling; but they hired a contractor to build the kitchen and redo the bathroom, now a whimsical retreat with a claw-footed bathtub (complete with a faux alligator sitting in it) and a large antique mirror.

"Had I been alone, I would have slapped a coat of paint on it and been done with it," says Gard. "This was Chevelle's vision."

The colors are bold, earthy rusts, yellows, blues and golds -- much like Chevelle's tropical canvases. The furniture is a stylish, comfortable hodgepodge that only an artist's eye could make work. Most of it is family pieces. The couple kept and refinished the firehouse's handsome wooden lockers to serve as storage space, closets and bookshelves.

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