If walls could talk, Capt. John Steele, along with two others, would have a tale to tell about the home he built circa 1788 in the Fells Point neighborhood.
In Baltimore Heritage's "Baltimore Building of the Week" series, John Breihan wrote about this shipbuilder's residence, citing its design "with the dormer windows and high-relief moldings characteristic of English Georgian architecture. It was lovingly restored and adapted for modern living by the Hepner family."
In 1967, the home's tale became that of Jean Hepner's transformation of a condemned and crumbling structure to a magnificent restoration. Hepner, who died in February, cared for her home and family while maintaining her position as a community activist, victorious in the fight against plans for an interstate highway that would have sliced through thee historic neighborhood.
In January 2011, the home and its story was picked up by Nicolas Jabko, 44, who had recently arrived from his native Paris to take the position of associate professor of political science at the Johns Hopkins University.
"I wanted an old house in the city," he said. "I didn't imagine a house this old. When I saw it, I fell off my feet!"
Jabko knew that parts of Paris just as old or older rented for exorbitant prices. He purchased Hepner's home, complete with what she referred to as "the new 1850 addition," pleased that he would be living at a price he could afford, compared to Parisian living.
Not about to interfere with perfection, Jabko did little else than repaint the rooms on each of the four floors and hire an architect to update the bathrooms and the kitchen. The kitchen, living room and dining room are on the home's second level.
"I used a lot of off-white or neutral colors, plus darker colors for contrast and a bit of color on the wood trims and the fireplaces," he said. "I tried to use only historic colors but to also create a modern feel at the same time."
Jabko's house consists of a series of entrances from one pastel room to another, all centered around a four-story winding staircase. The untouched architectural details — such as high ceilings, heart-of-pine flooring, intricate moldings and six original fireplaces — are highlighted with upscale, modern furnishing.
"I think modern furniture goes very well with the clean lines of this Federal [period] house," Jabko said. "The previous owner had it furnished with period furniture, but modern furniture works just as well, and I personally feel more comfortable in it. I especially like some of my wooden furniture, [like] the 1950s Scandinavian desk in the library and the curved wood chairs."
The desk sits at a multiframed window in his ground-floor library. That piece, along with a modern chair, is juxtaposed with 18th century-style bookcases, their glass cabinets decorated at the top with tracery molding.
The modern kitchen in the 1850s part of the house, designed by architect Nestor Zabala, defines Jabko's renovation. Here, under a pair of skylights, black high-gloss laminate cabinets stretch floor to ceiling and sit above the stainless-steel Bosch appliances . The entire area benefits from the under-cabinet lighting and its reflection on the beige subway tile backsplash and white siltstone countertops.
From the Greek key molding carved into the living room fireplace to the matching fan and key pediment over the room's doorway, the historical significance of the home's architecture blends with the placement of well-chosen furniture. The grand Palladian window over Jabko's front door and the carved archways invite visitors inside, through one room to another.
As Jabko prepares his home for public viewing as part of the Preservation Society's Historic Harbor House Tour (11 a.m. to 5 p.m. May 11), he reflects on the lives of its previous owners.
"I want to pay homage to Jean Hepner who died [in February] in a car accident," he said. "It was a slum tenement when she moved in, and she restored it very carefully and lovingly. Jean brought back to life all the historic beauty of the house. In comparison to her restoration, I did very little."
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