The home once owned by pioneering Rep. Parren J. Mitchell goes to auction this week amid hopes the mansion's Victorian charm can somehow outweigh a neighborhood coping with vacant houses and a litany of urban ills.
With its soaring gilt mirrors and filigreed plaster ceiling medallions, the house at 828 N. Carrollton Ave. is one of the grandest addresses overlooking Lafayette Square.
"I bought the house with my heart," confessed Lily T. Tsui, a Potomac resident who purchased the house "on impulse" but never lived in it. "I just looked at it and fell in love with it. When you go inside, it takes your breath away. Renovation is a personal hobby thing to me."
Tsui acquired the six-bedroom, three-bathroom 19th-century residence at Carrollton and Lafayette avenues nearly three years ago. Mitchell, who was Maryland's first elected African-American member of Congress, bought the house in the early 1980s and lived there for more than 20 years. He died in 2007.
Tsui, who said she enjoys renovating historic properties, stumbled upon the West Baltimore house one day while driving back to the Washington suburbs.
"I got lost," she said. "I discovered Lafayette Square. It was a glorious place, and I thought I could save this house. I did not want to see it made into apartments. I thought the name of Congressman Mitchell ought to be honored."
She hired architect Richard Wagner of the David Gleason architectural firm. She added a new kitchen with granite countertops, installed a three-zone central air-conditioning system and upgraded much of the interior, including the plumbing.
For all her labors and expense, Tsui said, she found no buyers. Instead, she has put the house up for auction, which will take place at 11 a.m Wednesday.
"I wish the city would do more to the area. The square is a thing of glory," said Tsui. "I just hope it will go to a decent buyer and not somebody who will chop it up."
The home overlooks Lafayette Square's trees, walkways and churches. In the 1930s and 1940s, it was Baltimore's most fashionable address for the African-American community. Prominent black religious congregations also located on or near the square.
"This was once an area of heavy home-ownership," said Arlene Fisher, president of the Lafayette Square Community Association, who lives in a West Lanvale Street home acquired by her great-grandparents. "Many children of the original owners, people who once worked at Domino Sugar or Bethlehem Steel, did not stay in the neighborhood. They bought their own homes elsewhere."
She said her community has many vacant homes, and she and others have been meeting with city housing officials with an eye toward stabilizing empty structures.
"The economy isn't helping us," said Fisher, who remains hopeful that the Mitchell mansion will find a taker.
Mitchell "was an avid collector of African art, and he filled the first-floor rooms with spears and shields," said Kieffer Mitchell, his nephew, who recalled the lunch parties his uncle held after Sunday services at nearby St. Katherine of Alexandria Episcopal Church. "He had a unique decorating sense."
He also recalled that the home's prominent corner location and large windows made it ideal for posting campaign signs. "The house had a prime location."
"This house needs someone very special to buy it," said real estate sales agent Stanley Zerden, who is working for the owner. "It needs someone who wants the house for what it is, not where it is."
After efforts failed to sell the house on the traditional real estate market, he made an agreement with Fox Residential Auctions to seek the highest bidder.
"The house has a tremendous potential and, with a minimal investment, the owner will wind up with the best house in the neighborhood," said John W. Mabry III, president of the auction firm.