Town home in East Baltimore captures charm of Victorian era

DREAM HOME

Restoration: A man with a passion for things old brings new life to a 19th-century brick rowhouse on East Pratt Street.

June 26, 2005|By Marie Gullard | Marie Gullard,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

From the time he was a teenager, Dean Alexander, now 41, has had a love affair with old things. As a youth, his passion was restoring antique British cars. Now the professional photographer has a new obsession - a meticulously restored, 19th-century Victorian town home on Baltimore's east side.

In 1988, not long after college, Dean Alexander purchased the three-story, end of group, brick house on East Pratt Street for $52,000.

"The gasps at the price [need] to be taken in context," Alexander said. "The neighborhood was the Wild West back then."

In addition, the house was "incredibly chopped up" into four apartments, molding everywhere was covered with layers of paint, and fireplaces were painted over.

While Alexander moved into the house right away, it wasn't until a decade later, he said, that he really "went to town on renovation."

"I was young, and thought the project was small," he remembered. "[That] was sheer juvenile enthusiasm."

Since 1998, Alexander has spent about $200,000 to fastidiously restore the house. He put in a new kitchen, floor and ceiling molding in each room, and two-zone central air conditioning. Custom replacement windows were milled to look like the originals. Throughout much of the transformation process, he relied on the help and artistic input from his wife, Donna, a 42-year-old freelance graphic designer.

17 feet wide

The 17-foot-wide home boasts covered rear porches, with southern exposure, on all three stories. The house also includes a full basement, three bedrooms, three full baths and 11-foot ceilings.

Marble floor tiles and white relief wallpaper in a medallion pattern enhance the double-door entrance, which opens onto a long hallway on the house's west side. Halfway down the gleaming pine floor in the hall, a staircase with natural wood rails and carved wooden spindles painted white rises three levels. A bathroom, at the hall's end, features wainscoting halfway up the wall. The upper half is painted a pastel yellow - a shade also used in the living room, dining room, hallway and most of the second level.

Alexander, determined to do justice to authentic Victorian dM-icor, took great pains replicating molding and doors on the first level. New, heavy-gauge pine was stained, then dry brushed in multiple shades to give an appearance of older wood. A pair of heavy doors salvaged from City Hall was put in to separate the dining room and kitchen. Parisian hardware was procured, polished, and placed on the doors.

"Everything you see was bought somewhere else," said Alexander, noting in particular the marble fireplace in the living room.

Found in pieces in an antique store, it was reassembled over a brick hearth and is the focal point of the room. A poster-sized framed photograph of downtown's Matheson Building hangs over the mantel. One of Alexander's recent works, the sepia print was meant to convey "another place, another time," he said.

The couple's love of highly detailed furnishings is evident throughout. A love seat and two chairs upholstered in dark burgundy mohair and accented with mahogany wood rising to a carved fleur-de-lis sit in front of the fireplace. Tasseled burgundy velvet drapes are tied back to reveal lace sheers over 8-foot high front windows.

A mahogany and walnut dining room table from the 1920s has an elaborately carved pedestal reminiscent of an English Renaissance piece. In keeping with the look, a painting of Mary, Queen of Scots, hangs on the room's east wall. The Alexanders like to point out that the painting came from the set of the John Waters movie Cry-Baby.

Donna Alexander designed the kitchen that occupies the rear of the first level. Dark, cherry wood cabinets provide contrast to stainless appliances and granite countertops. Two large ceiling light fixtures with milk-glass globes carry over the Victorian look. These treasures were procured from an old post office in Federal Hill.

The home's second level is consistent to the period, showcasing a bathroom at the rear with a transom door, mahogany tongue-in-groove wainscoting, black and white ceramic tile flooring, and a 6-foot-long claw-foot tub in pristine condition. A separate glassed-in shower is the only modern touch.

Guestroom features

A front guestroom features another marble fireplace and a Victorian walnut bed, whose carved, steeple-like headboard rises 8 feet.

Longtime friend Tom Sabia marvels over the Alexanders' restoration.

"To me, it's the benchmark house of Butchers Hill," he said. "Everything down to the hinges is authentic."

The home's third floor, however, is a time trip into the present. This "family floor," as the couple calls it, is bright and airy in feel, with white walls and plenty of natural light from a skylight and a set of four French doors that lead to an outdoor covered balcony with a stunning view of the harbor, Patterson Park and downtown.

A creative outlet

A second suite of burgundy, mohair-covered furniture sits in the center of the open space. Toys and a miniature table and chair set for the couple's 2-year-old daughter, Chloe, occupy a corner beside an efficiency kitchen. The master bedroom in the front of the level carries over the white, bright feel of the space, with a 10-foot-high mahogany armoire offering the only contrast.

Dean and Donna Alexander love city life and the neighborhood in particular, adding that, for them, renovation is a continuing, creative outlet.

"It's a passion that gets out of control," said Donna Alexander.

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