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James M. Riggs, vice president of Osprey Property Companies, stands with the site of 20 E. Franklin Street behind him. His company is developing the existing building and some new construction into 40 apartments.
James M. Riggs, vice president of Osprey Property Companies, stands with the site of 20 E. Franklin Street behind him. His company is developing the existing building and some new construction into 40 apartments. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

A trio of Cathedral Hill townhouses that once housed wealthy Baltimore families are being reinvented as apartments aimed at a new generation who want to live and work downtown.

Renamed Franklin Lofts & Flats, the Federal-style merchants' homes face East Franklin Street at St. Paul Place, a few doors from Tio Pepe restaurant. All three have been vacant for nearly a decade.

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Sometime next year, renters will be able to live at a place that once overlooked the 1820s construction of the Washington Monument. An attic, four flights up, affords views of old Baltimore's Hamilton Street and neighborhood rooftops.

Architectural purists might say these structures were compromised in 1922, when Consolidated Engineering Co. bought 18 and 20 E. Franklin for offices. Later, engineers streamlined the buildings with a limestone facing and additions, making them suitable for a 1940s office building.

After that, "the buildings were largely gutted in the 1960s, when all the former homes were consolidated into one," said James M. Riggs, vice president of Osprey Property Companies, the developer.

"Nothing of interior historic interest survived, with the exception of a single set of stairs in No. 20 — and we'll be reusing them," he said.

The smallest home, No. 16, was built in 1899 for the Lovell family. Consolidated Engineering removed all of the original floors during its renovation. Now construction workers will return a large part of the unit to its original design, making it a three-bedroom residence.

"One of the most recent uses of the building was as the New Foundations School," said Riggs, speaking of the alternative education academy that operated there about 17 years ago. "One of the basement rooms we called the 'record room,' because it was decorated with vinyl records nailed to the wall. Classic albums — Bee Gees, Barry Manilow and Air Supply — were represented."

Like many old Baltimore buildings, Franklin Lofts posed questions as Osprey and its contractors peeled back what the ages had imposed.

"When we first explored the building, we noted several of the offices had small safes, as well as a large vault on the main floor. We thought it was once a bank," Riggs said. "When we bought the building, the project superintendent didn't wait for the demo crews. He pulled the wallboard down and found not one safe, but five large safes.

"We then planned a safe-cracking episode," he said. "We found all the safes empty."

Riggs said his firm's $14 million investment will result in 41 apartments and 11 on-site parking spaces.

Half of the former townhouse units and a new addition designed by architects Cho Benn Holback Associates Inc. will be one-bedroom housing. The rest will have two or three bedrooms.

"Downtown is out the door," Riggs said. "For a young family with small children, apartments at our location provide walkable access to numerous job opportunities. Mercy Hospital is just a block away. We expect our people to ride bikes or the Charm City Circulator."

Riggs hopes the rents, about $850 a month, will be "more affordable than other new downtown-area apartments," and provide a home for people who are making the downtown a lively place to be.

"We want a place for the baristas and musicians to live," he said.

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