A Baltimore house known for its famous residents is brought back to life

Photographer David Bachrach and writer Gertrude Stein both called the Reservoir Hill landmark home

Whether it's called the David Bachrach House or the Gertrude Stein House makes no difference to me. This Reservoir Hill landmark, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, has finally achieved a striking, permanent restoration. It languished in ruins for decades and faced a dubious future, despite its remarkable pedigree.

Just this month, its final group of new residents moved into what has re-emerged as a Linden Avenue Victorian showcase, a charming reminder of what would have been a breeze-filled suburban cottage surrounded by fields near Druid Hill Park.

Aside from being a handsome wooden 1886 structure, this house has a fascinating history entwined with the artistic Bachrach, Keysers and Steins. Photographer David Bachrach built the house nearly two decades after he photographed Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg at the time of his Gettysburg Address. His brother-in-law, Ephraim Keyser, had his sculptor's studio at the rear of the property, where it remains and has also been handsomely renovated.

Keyser, who headed the Maryland Institute College of Art's Rinehart School of Sculpture, spent part of the year in artistic circles in Europe. He located the celebrated apartment, at 27 rue de Fleurus, for the writer Gertrude Stein, who was part of the family. Stein also lived briefly at 2408 Linden Ave. during the summer of 1892 — and most likely visited family members there during her years as a Johns Hopkins medical student.

I recall visiting the place in the mid-1980s, when research disclosed the story behind the home's important first residents and how they created a family compound. I met with Diana Digges of the staff of the city Commission for Historic and Architectural Preservation, who worked diligently to have the residences recognized. The Gay Community Center placed a plaque on its facade at that time to commemorate the home's association with Gertrude Stein.

The house was designed by the prolific Baltimore architect George Frederick, who gave us our City Hall and many other landmarks, including St. James the Less Roman Catholic Church in East Baltimore.

As the residence of a successful Baltimore photographer — the extended Bachrach family later had fancy photo studios along the East Coast and were noted for their gilt-edged clientele — the house David Bachrach built was large: 6,200 square feet, including the backyard art studio. Its sheer size, nearly twice the size of other Baltimore homes in the area, contributed to its list of vexing rehab issues.

Normally we build in brick, but the house was built of wood covered with wood siding. After years of sitting abandoned, the wood rot was considerable. The current renovation price is $1.6 million.

"It was in horrible, horrible condition," said Mark Sissman, director of Healthy Neighborhoods, the group that paid to restore the residence. "Nobody knew what to do with it. We were nervous about spending too much money on what became five units of housing."

Healthy Neighborhoods worked with the Women's Housing Coalition, Southway Builders and the Episcopal Housing Corporation. The home has been reconfigured, with four apartments in the main residence and another in the Keyser sculpture studio. The tenants were all placed there through the work of the Women's Housing Coalition, its new owner.

"There were enough pieces of the original staircase left to duplicate it," said Daniel McCarthy, executive director of Episcopal Housing, who was a consultant for the restoration.

David Bachrach took a photograph of his family on the side porch. This print provided clues. Bits of the interior wood finish survived — in pieces. All were painstakingly copied and reinstated in this thoughtful and well-funded restoration.

Healthy Neighborhoods has also worked in other blocks of Reservoir Hill, where there is now a flourishing urban farm on nearby Whitelock Street. (The Whitelocks, Robert and Elizabeth, sold the building lot to David Bachrach in 1875.)

The surviving Bachrach-Keysers left the house in 1920. Ephraim Keyser moved to 20 Overhill Road in Roland Park. Fannie Bachrach died in 1937 at the Tudor Arms apartments on University Parkway near Wyman Park.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

 

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