A tinkerer's treasure house

Dream Home: Great clocks and musical instruments dominate Durward R. Center's 1885 house in North Baltimore.

April 10, 2005|By Will Morton | Will Morton,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Stepping into 2100 St. Paul St. is like stepping back into Victorian Baltimore, redrawn by man with a passion for restoring self-playing organs and exceptionally large clocks.

It's a tinkerer's treasure that ticks.

Durward R. Center, 55, has spent three decades restoring the house and adding three tower clocks - two visible from 21st Street and one on the St. Paul Street side. The 220-pound clock weights, the size of gallon paint cans, hang in odd places such as in the stairwell from the third floor down to the first. A pendulum from one third-floor clock swings through a large slot cut through the second-floor dining room ceiling.

"It's an amazing, otherworldly place," neighbor Peter Duvall said. "The house itself is a clock. That's what I find neat, intellectually."

The house is one of about a dozen sites that will be open during next Sunday's house tour of the Old Goucher Historic District, which is bounded by Howard Street, Guilford Avenue, 20th and 27th streets.

Built in 1885, the house was gutted and turned into an office building by 1948. Center discovered it while living in Alexandria, Va., in the 1970s, where he had left a job at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington to restore mechanical and musical instruments on his own.

He bought it for $24,000 in 1976 and set to building a showplace for his one-man restoration business. He also needed somewhere big enough to keep his collection of architectural components, including chandeliers and marble bathroom sinks - something the 7,200-square-foot property provided.

"I've always been mechanically inclined," said Center, who studied woodworking and industrial technology at Eastern Kentucky University, graduating in 1971. "I took everything apart."

He found a 20-foot by 60-foot wasteland of blue-painted wallpaper, fluorescent lights and linoleum floors on all four levels. Each floor had men's and women's restrooms, which Center refitted with early 20th century pull-chain commodes.

"There was nothing left of architectural interest, but it was a great space," said Center, who has spent many times the purchase price renovating the home.

Clocks of all sizes dominate the house. The largest - with 5-foot-wide faces and hands the size of a man's arm - are on the third floor. They're so big, they have their own rooms to house their ever-moving parts. A nonstop clatter quietly pervades the house. On the building's 21st Street exterior, a copper and wrought iron dragon with an 8-foot wingspan strikes a bell with its tail on the quarter hour.

"It's a wonderful machine. It's very hypnotic to watch," Center said with a shy grin.

With a face as big as three double-hung windows, the St. Paul Street clock gets its own room, but it's not alone. A collection of 50 pre-1900 electric fans and a 9-by-12-foot map of the world in 1938 keep it company.

A breathtaking gas-lighted crystal chandelier reigns over the first-floor living room, hanging on a silver-plated frame from the 12-foot ceiling. It has so many crystals, it gets an all-day cleaning only every seven or eight years.

The fixture is suspended from an ornate 5-foot-wide ceiling medallion; Center spent hours carefully chipping away layers of paint that masked its details.

"I don't want to do it again," Center said, smiling up at the fixture amid 1870s-era furnishings.

Around 1985, Center restored the living room floor. By hand, he laid out, glued and nailed the walnut and white oak pieces. A geometric pattern rings the front sitting area, with a triangular pattern marking off the middle part of the 50-foot- long room.

In the fireplace, which Center added, stands a nonworking Baltimore-made Latrobe coal stove. Above it is a walnut burl mantel, which Center found covered in black and gold paint in a New York City antique shop.

Beige and ochre yellow walls give way to a reddish-beige ceiling, surrounded by a maroon stripe and a band of mauve above plaster molding.

Grand ascent

Stairs to the second floor stand as if ready for a bride's sweeping entry. Before the 1948 renovation, the steps were 2 1/2 feet wide. Turning the building into office space required ripping out pocket doors and putting in unwittingly grand 4 1/2 -foot- wide steps.

Floor-to-ceiling stained birch columns set off the living room's midsection, holding up shallow gothic arches.

In the rear of the living room, the rectangular bay window is cloaked in heavy maroon drapes salvaged by a friend from a movie theater in Indiana, Pa. "It never saw the light of day, so it was in great shape," Center said about the fabric.

Standing at the rear of the living room, a massive brass reed organ stands like an altar, waiting for Center to finish restoring it. Built for the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, the hand-pumped instrument sounds like an accordion on steroids.

In two small rooms under the stairs, Center keeps his collection of about 1,000 rolls of music that go in his self-playing organs, known as orchestrions.

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