An Artistic Renovation


April 03, 2005|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

What's it like to live in a renovated rowhouse that doubles as an art gallery?

For sculptor William Rhodes, who transformed an abandoned Charles Village rowhouse from top to bottom and turned it into an elegant combination living space and gallery, the answer is: Very, very cool.

Rhodes, 38, is the owner of St. Paul Art & Design, a Baltimore art space that's put on at least a dozen shows by local and visiting artists since Rhodes bought the place in 2000 under a city program that helps homebuyers purchase vacant or abandoned houses.

"It was in very bad condition," Rhodes recalls. "It needed new plumbing, new electricity, a new roof and a new heating system. The floors on the ground floor were cement, and the only wood floors that were there had been painted brown throughout the house."

As if that weren't enough, there was also a gaping hole the size of a brick fireplace in one wall that let water flood the house every time it rained.

But Rhodes, a Baltimore native who had returned to the city after years of living and studying abroad, thought he saw potential in the place.

Under the city's Vacant House Program, he was able to buy the house and get a loan to fix it up with help from a list of city-approved contractors.

"It was an incredible deal," says Rhodes, who works as a faux finisher and decorative painter for a Baltimore-area interior design firm. "With the amount of money I was making then, I never could have afforded it on my own."

The contractors did the major construction work and repaired the building's utilities. After that, Rhodes used his knowledge of decorative painting and interior design to do a complete makeover of the inside of the house.

He put in cabinets, patched and painted walls, redid the floors and rejuvenated the woodwork by installing new cabinets and shelves all over the house, including inside the stairwells. He had a local street artist, Robert Kaki McQueen, paint a downstairs mural depicting gods and goddesses from around the world.

Gradually, over a five-year period, he brought the century-old, 12-room house back to something like pristine condition.

"I never thought it would be this much work when I started," he says, "but it was definitely worth it."

Much of the house has been turned into gallery space. Rhodes exhibits other artists' work in the front room on the ground floor and uses the rest of the space to display artworks he has collected during his travels. His own works are scattered throughout his house.

Above the third-floor landing outside his bedroom, for example, he's installed dozens of carved and painted masks from Africa, Asia and South America.

"Since I'm a carver, they give me inspiration for my own work," he explains.

In the foyer, the walls are decorated with a faux finish Rhodes designed himself.

"It's an oil rub, a technique where you take oil glaze, add pigment and apply it to a painted surface with a rag," Rhodes explains. "By moving the rag different ways, you can create different patterns. I wanted this space, for example, to have a kind of leathery look."

In a downstairs hallway, Rhodes finished the walls in gold leaf with silver glaze on top. "It's supposed to look like old gold," he says, "as if it had weathered and tarnished in spots."

The hall also features decorative touches Rhodes installed himself, like a pair of carved wood Islamic arches and an antique wrought-iron lamp that he found in a scrap yard and bought for $6.

Asked whether he feels his efforts have paid off, Rhodes couldn't be more upbeat.

"I think it has," he says. "Because what you've done is take something that's been discarded, that nobody wants, and you put some value into it."

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