Two rowhouses share the same collector's heart


Adventure: This double rowhouse is filled with surprises. For instance, baby dolls hang from orange trees out back.

May 09, 2004|By Marie Gullard | Marie Gullard,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

In Dan Van Allen's world, it's all about art and vast collections of objects - from valuable pieces of Hindu sculpture to plain old stuff purchased in thrift shops around town.

All of these things are housed in two adjoining brick rowhouses (circa 1850) in the Hollins Market area of Southwest Baltimore.

Van Allen is a mixed-media artist and a furniture restorer by trade. He lives in the 2 1/2 -story home with his partner, Spoon Popkin, a portrait painter.

In 1980, he bought the first rowhouse on South Arlington Street for $10,000. Five years later, the adjacent rowhouse on the north side was purchased for $11,000.

An early project was to join the identically designed floor plans by creating openings between the two houses. Those openings are found in the front rooms of the first and second levels.

The renovation yielded 19 rooms, including a 12-by-19-foot addition that Van Allen had built onto the back of one of the houses. The entire living space is 2,844 square feet.

Van Allen estimates that he has spent $16,000 over the years on a new roof, the basement kitchen and the addition.

Visitors to the rowhouses pass valuable artifacts mingled with flea market finds. Walls are filled with photographs, postcard prints, paintings and Christmas tree lights. A narrow flight of stairs leads into the heart of the home, the kitchen and dining area in the south house.

"The basements in these houses were intended for living," Van Allen says.

Van Allen's kitchen set is a 1950s-modern blend of chrome and vinyl chairs. A bright floral tablecloth serves as a coaster for a large aloe plant, its weighty leaves bending snakelike.

The concrete floors in these two basement rooms are accented with linoleum rugs in faded floral shades of five colors, predominantly red. The ends are worn and broken off.

A rabbit named Pat scampers across the carpet. A corner cabinet - rustic and distressed - houses a collection of wooden bowls. Small sculptures of Hindu gods and goddesses sit on Van Allen's restored cabinets. One cabinet is painted green and holds a collection of espresso pots in various sizes and shapes.

"I consider myself a curator of things too good to pass up," Van Allen says. "In my retirement, I could live off eBay."

A corner of the basement contains an arched brick hearth. Van Allen redesigned and rebuilt the original square opening. The working fireplace is topped with a slate mantel, which holds a collection of Hindu snake gods.

Above the mantel sits a mosaic constructed of pieces of broken pottery Van Allen collected from around the harbor. The fireplace screen bears a hand-painted countryside mural by a local artist.

Van Allen loves to travel and sample regional foods. He does his cooking on a well-worn green and white porcelain Magic Chef gas stove and broiler made in 1920.

The basement of the north house, reached through an opening in the brick in the front of the kitchen, is Van Allen's tool room. It includes a workbench, power tools and radial-arm saw.

Steps, identical to the ones in the kitchen next door, lead to the first level and his studio, which has a painted tin ceiling and the original pine flooring in random widths.

To the west, beyond the studio, is Van Allen's furniture-finishing room, which has a skylight.

A staircase to the second level of the north house opens to Popkin's sewing room.

Here, a tin ceiling has been painted yellow, then washed in a blue glaze for an antique green effect. The front room on this level is a dressing and storage room. The walls are one long mural of Mayan images, painted by Popkin, 34, and Van Allen, 51.

The second level of the south house serves as Van Allen's office and library. Painted in lime green, the south wall is lined with bookshelves.

The home's only bathroom, west of the library, is referred to as the "coconut-orium." Hand-painted faces on hanging coconuts lord over the room; a mask collection on the walls, and a claw-foot tub have a voodoo theme. The north home's original bathroom was renovated into studio space.

Popkin and Van Allen's bedroom, in the front of the south house, has been named the Egyptian room. Floral linoleum is used again. Blue ceilings are painted in an Egyptian star motif and glisten with 23-karat, hand-painted stars. A tiny staircase leads to a garret, which contains Popkin's painting studio.

In the large back yard, Van Allen has built a rustic deck. Baby dolls hang from orange trees near two brightly painted kayaks. Lights are strung along a porch overhang with tiny lampshades made of liquor miniature bottles.

Dick Horne, curator of the American Dime Museum, has been a friend of Van Allen's since 1999. "Dan's house is [like a] warren of paths through a collection of fascinating objects," he says.

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