Turning a corner on St. Paul

Renewal: Seventh Baptist Church and nine dedicated homeowners have given new life to a dilapidated city block.

April 28, 2003|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,SUN STAFF

The 1900 block of St. Paul St. is coming back to life.

Nine new homeowners are doing what others dream of: moving into a place of desolation and transforming it into one of vibrancy and hope.

The Seventh Baptist Church, partly responsible for the block's decline, has made its rebirth possible. Five years ago, it offered its row of dilapidated Victorian houses at below-market prices - as low as $25,000 - to people motivated by necessity and dreams, incredible value and missionary zeal.

In exchange, the buyers were to renovate the houses and live in them.

The rowhouses were built about 1890 for the upper middle class. Featuring Queen Anne and Romanesque designs, terra-cotta ornamentation, ornate slate roofs and stained-glass windows, they rise three or four stories.

By the 1970s, Seventh Baptist had purchased all but one home in the 1900 block. It used the property for social services including housing for the elderly and patients released from mental hospitals. But as the church's membership dwindled and its coffers drained, it could no longer afford to keep those programs going. It divided the homes and started renting them as apartments.

By the mid-1990s, the church was hardly a model landlord. The houses were filthy and had fallen into disrepair, at least one infested with cockroaches. The area became known as a hangout for prostitutes, the homeless and drug dealers.

By 1998, the church knew it had to sell the houses, but it rejected inquiries from developers. It wasn't looking to make money so much as to do something good for the community. So it sought homeowners who would restore stability, church officials said.

That sales pitch won over Mark Cavaliere, who had recently moved back to Baltimore from Hawaii, in part because he thought the buildings there were too new and boring.

"I felt that, at the very least, we'd be a group of people with the same thing in mind," said Cavaliere, 40, who is trying to restore 1931 St. Paul to as close to its original condition as possible. "We'd be sort of an oasis amid the rubble."

Today, that group includes a management consultant and graduate student, a construction manager and single mother, and the church's pastor. Some came from the suburbs, some from Washington, some from elsewhere in Baltimore.

Nearly half of the new homeowners are Seventh Baptist members, including Peter and Margaret Penno, who are moving from Towson and overhauling 1915 St. Paul. He's chairman of the church's board; she runs its Sunday school. Since only about 50 people regularly attend services at Seventh Baptist, about 10 percent of its membership lives on the block.

Changes outside, inside

Eleven houses line the east side of the block - including one the church kept for missionary housing and the one it did not own, which has been made into apartments. The church's Heritage Building, occupied by a medical clinic and a day-care center, anchors the block on the south end, next to North Avenue. The west side is taken up entirely by Seventh Baptist and St. Mark's Lutheran Church.

Michael Deets, a facility manager for the University of Maryland Medical System, bought 1925 St. Paul for $32,000, but he has spent nearly triple that on renovations.

Deets has one of the few houses on the block with a completed exterior renovation. Some of his neighbors spent money inside first, so a drive down the block does not reveal the full extent of the change.

Just inside Deets' house is a grand dark wooden staircase. The walls are smooth and white now that the wallpaper covered with paint is gone and crumbling plaster has been repaired. The hardwood floors shine without black asphalt and linoleum on them.

After working on the house for nearly three years while living with his parents in Columbia, the 37-year-old Deets is finally moving in.

He is clearly enamored of his house's history and architecture. But he said his interest in the block and its neighborhood was sparked by the fact that "it seemed like the missing link in the development of Baltimore." He wants to help create a place where people feel safe parking their cars and walking around.

Situated between well-established Charles Village and Mount Vernon, the neighborhood known as Charles North - its center is at Charles Street and North Avenue - is often called "the hole in the doughnut."

Residents say their neighborhood's architecture, central location and proximity to Penn Station position it to become a new hot spot, if people can get over the stigma associated with North Avenue.

"If you make any kind of money, you can live like a king here," said Freda Sands, a sales executive who sold her house in the county to restore a home in the 1700 block of St. Paul. "You could come here and buy one of these huge Victorians and, with a little elbow grease, you could have a mansion in the city."

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