Together, under one roof

ARCHITECTURE

June 13, 2005|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

From 1917 to 1960, the handsome brick building on Ellerslie Avenue was an orphanage for African-American children.

Today, after a $7 million renovation, it's again providing a home for children - this time, residences for families adopting multiple siblings.

It's also a home for people with disabilities and for aging members of the Catholic order that has owned the 10-acre property for decades, the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi.

Clare Court is the name of the multigenerational community that has been created inside the shell of the old St. Elizabeth's Home at 3725 Ellerslie Ave. in Ednor Gardens.

The conversion, designed by Hord Coplan Macht Architects of Baltimore, helped save a landmark that occupies a picturesque hilltop overlooking downtown.

It also provided a way for the property's owners, the Franciscan Sisters, to "age in place" while bringing in others who would help keep it up and make full use of it. "It brings us right back to our roots and back to the beginnings of St. Elizabeth's Home," said Sister Ellen Carr, coordinator of property development for the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi.

"Our community has always lived as an intergenerational community," Carr said. Clare Court is "a place where children can live in an environment that really is supportive ... and where they can bring new life to the older members of the community. We're delighted that we're all together."

Named after St. Clare, a contemporary of St. Francis, Clare Court was constructed over the past two years and contains 30 apartments for moderate-income residents, as well as living quarters for 10 sisters.

Now fully occupied, it was just named the Best Project in Maryland for 2005 by a group that encourages affordable housing in the region, the Housing Association of Nonprofit Developers.

St. Elizabeth's Home was built as an orphanage, school and convent by the Franciscan Sisters of Baltimore, now the Sisters of Saint Francis of Assisi. The original architect was the office of Baldwin and Pennington, known for its work for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and other high-profile clients.

Over the years, the need for the orphanage declined as a result of desegregation. While the sisters continued to live on the property, their numbers declined, and they could no longer afford to maintain it properly.

"We were underutilizing this wonderful resource," Carr said.

Starting in the late 1990s, the sisters began working with an Annapolis-based nonprofit developer called Homes for America and a second group, Communities of Care, to create a residence with several components.

A portion of the 50,000-square-foot convent was retained as a "supportive living facility" for frail and elderly sisters. Called Clare Court Convent, it contains one of the original chapels, a community room, dining room, whirlpool room and two guest bedrooms as well as private residences.

The sisters sold 35,000 square feet of the convent and an adjacent 8,000-square-foot stone manor house to a subsidiary of Homes for America, which secured low-income housing tax credits to finance the project.

Hord Coplan Macht created three four-bedroom apartments, 17 two-bedroom apartments and 10 one-bedroom apartments. The architects retained many of the building's historic elements, such as original wood doors, paneling in the lobby and the original elevator cab. Southway Builders was the contractor.

The four-bedroom homes are reserved for families that adopt multiple siblings. Half of the one- and two-bedroom units are set aside for households headed by people 62 or older.

The result is a community in which children mix with seniors. The families with children live in townhouse-like apartments that have separate entrances at ground level, while seniors and people with disabilities have a shared entrance and community space.

The state of Maryland allocated tax credits and provided other financial assistance, and the Federal Home Loan Bank of Atlanta provided Affordable Housing Program funding. Clare Court also received HOME Program funding and Section 8 project-based voucher support from Baltimore City and Anne Arundel County.

Carr said she is looking forward to the dedication ceremony, scheduled for June 21, as a way to bring the residents even closer.

"It's going to take time for us to develop a sense of community and be able to realize the vision," she said. "But certainly the pieces are all in place. The housing is here. The families are here. We are filled to capacity."

What unites the different components of Clare Court, she said, is the understanding shared by everyone who agrees to live there. "The idea is to create a nurturing, supportive community where we know each other and are supporting each others' lives," she said. "We are not just renting apartments."

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