Living and working in style, a Baltimore throwback

For The Baltimore Sun
Working and living in the same building is a throwback to an older time for this Baltimore couple.

Michael Wright points to the old black-and-white photo, a man in a white shirt and black pants standing outside a brick building. Behind him is a hand-lettered sign with the word "leather" visible in the window.

"This is probably from the late 1800s when the building was a store," Wright said. "Many of the houses on the street appeared to have been storefronts with residences above."

Wright stands now in the kitchen of the same three-story building, which he owns with Seth Barkman, on Eastern Avenue. As in that picture, the building today is both home and business.

Partners in love and work, the two have lived above their store MiY Furniture since it opened in September 2014. They bought two adjacent buildings in the Douglass District of the Fells Point neighborhood in 2013 and began renovations that would combine both buildings and uses.

The furniture store takes up the entire first floor and half of the second floor of the 8,000-square-foot space. The rest — some 3,500 square feet — accommodates the couple's three-bedroom, three-and-a-half bath living quarters.

Named for abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who built rowhomes on Dallas Street, Douglass District sits toward the back of Fells Point, surrounded by old factories and within smelling distance of H&M Bakery. The buildings Wright and Barkman acquired had been empty since the '70s and '80s, even as redevelopment swept through surrounding neighborhoods.

"They were exceptionally derelict," Barkman said. "We could see that there were really cool features to it. When we started peeling back just a few surfaces, we felt like leaving it all exactly as it was and not trying to fuss with it too much."

As the couple gutted the building, instead of removing vestiges of the home's past, they decided to incorporate those elements into the renovation.

Original burn marks — from an old fireplace or smelter — still scar the wall and ceiling in the living room. The couple left the ceilings throughout exposed, showing the pipes and conduits installed through the decades, including gas lines that once supplied the lighting in the space.

They opened a dumbwaiter shaft and installed a glass pane showing the steel supports running from top to bottom.

They've left the original brick and plaster walls, which still carry marks from the home's hundred-plus year history. Peeling wallpaper, a remnant from the late 1800s or early 1900s, became part of the design motif in the second floor's open living area. They also left graffiti signatures in pen and pencil, another relic from decades past, along with marks left on the walls by tools and use.

The renovations uncovered glimpses of the building's past: bits of leather and old shoe heels, likely from when the building housed the leather shop.

"We still remember loving walking through the building before it was done. We wanted to keep that," Wright said.

While the renovation left the historical features, the couple's taste in furniture and art lends it a modern feel.

The stairs to the second floor open into the kitchen. A 22-foot long concrete and wood kitchen island holds the stainless steel sink and provides in-kitchen seating. The couple reclaimed wood beams from the exterior to support the island's concrete slab. As Wright and Barkman clear-coated the slab with epoxy, imperfections and spider-web cracking emerged.

"It's really rustic and the characteristic of the countertop itself reflects the house," Barkman added. "It feels worn. It feels weathered. It feels like it's been here for a while."

The kitchen is otherwise modern with stainless steel and gray lacquered cabinets, a built-in cooktop, and stainless steel appliances.

They installed utility-grade wood flooring, which has more cracks and knots than you'd find in typical residential flooring, which matches the industrial modern vibe of the home.

The pair previously lived in a traditional rowhome on the south edge of Patterson Park. Their new space is more than double the typical rowhome's width and at 60 feet long functions as both living and office space.

Gears that once drove the dumbwaiter now serve as the base of a glass high-top table in the dining room. An oval dining table with a modern design sourced from the couple's furniture suppliers provides either traditional eating space or another work space.

The living room sits at the front of the home by windows that overlook Eastern Avenue. Artwork by local Maryland artists Wright and Barkman discovered together decorate the space, including pottery and a modern block print purchased from Maryland Art Place in the Lexington Market area.

A red-white-blue-and-yellow art installation by Baltimore artist Loring Cornish is the living room's primary focal piece. An 8-foot-tall slab and three 6-foot-tall slabs are painted solid colors with a spider web crack that works its way through the finish of the pieces.

The couple designed the open space for entertaining. A 14-foot long gray Italian sectional sofa by Bontempi and accompanying ottomans provide seating room for guests.

A half-flight of stairs off the living room leads to a room and bath that, technically, reside in the building next door. It, too, serves double duty.

"Our space is a living, breathing space. Right now we have a guest bedroom that is now an office. In a few months it might be something different," Barkman said.

The 800-square-foot third floor functions much like a condo, with a second guest bedroom, the master bedroom, a combined walk-in closet and bathroom, a utility area and a small sitting area. The third floor rises above neighboring properties and required insulation and drywall for permit approval, so the space is more finished, with ample natural light throughout.

The couple left as many original architectural elements as possible, including a wooden ladder and exposed concrete beam in the sitting area.

Most notable about the condo is the open-air bathroom with a three-spigot tiled walk-in shower. Across from it, in the same room, is the couple's closet.

The home is capped by a two-tiered rooftop deck offering 360-degree views of the harbor and city. It is filled with outdoor furniture for sale through the store, and Wright and Barkman spend their mornings sipping coffee from a high-top table there as they prepare for the workday to come.

They are not alone in combining work and living space under one roof. Four other businesses on the same block have owners who live above their retail space.

The home has become a gathering spot for the neighborhood and friends acquired through their business. MiY stands for "mine is yours," the pair's philosophy for how they combine work and life.

"What we're doing feels much more like we're back in the 1800s," Barkman said. "If you imagine what they were doing back then, they were serving the community they lived in, the same way we do."

They have a grander vision for the block: a self-styled design district. They've purchased four additional properties where they hope to house some 52,000 square feet of design and furniture retail space once they move through the approval process.

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