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Jacques Kelly: General Riggs' Mount Vernon mansion is reborn

Stefan Popescu, left, and Andrew Klymkowsky of Reveal Real Estate have renovated the building at 814 Cathedral St., the former mansion of Gen. Lawrason Riggs. The building is now split into 13 apartment units.
Stefan Popescu, left, and Andrew Klymkowsky of Reveal Real Estate have renovated the building at 814 Cathedral St., the former mansion of Gen. Lawrason Riggs. The building is now split into 13 apartment units. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

The grand staircase at 814 Cathedral St. leads to a ballroom. Where there would normally be a neighboring home is a walled private garden. The carriage house, which once stabled eight horses, has quarters for grooms upstairs.

The one-time home of Gen. Lawrason Riggs, an attorney, banker and Baltimore school and police board chairman, has emerged from a $2.4 million renovation, which includes the $800,000 purchase cost.of the Mount Vernon landmark.

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“When we bought the place, it was not reaching the potential of its original grandeur, said Stefan Popescu, who heads Reveal Real Estate. “This is definitely our flagship property. We took the challenge of this building more than personally.”

The house, converted into 13 apartments around the time of World War II, proved quite a task. Its antiquated boiler gave out shortly after Popescu bought it in 2014. Its wiring consisted of a maze of fuse boxes. Popescu and his business associates decided to close the structure, thoroughly renovate it, and make it the kind of place where General Riggs once displayed his collection of Chinese art and Calvert family paintings.

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He found that tenants were willing to pay from $1,350 to $2,500 a month to live in one of Mount Vernon’s more remarkable mansions. The cheaper apartments, up four flights (no elevator), were the first to fill up. Popescu temporarily works out of General Riggs’ study. Riggs’ walk-in safe survives; its door weighs 300 pounds. It is now a bathroom.

“There is a segment of people who want to rent in a historic district and live in a luxury apartment . They like the feel of marble fireplaces and gilt mirrors and original heart pine floors,” said Popescu, who is by training a civil engineer. “Mount Vernon has the true characteristics of a real downtown city.”

His associate, Andrew Klymkowsky, described the care taken of the home’s collection of gold-framed mirrors that hang over the marble fireplaces.

“We carefully took down six mirrors and built them into a bunker box and did the construction around them,” said Klymkowsky. “When we reopened the box, they all survived.”

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The mirrors are 18 feet tall, in rooms with 22-foot-high ceilings. The new, Pella-made windows (all to historic specification) are 16 feet high. Rooms in the rear of the home contain plain fireplaces and smaller windows. Parts of the house contain five floors.

Klymkowsky said that the building’s attraction was not entirely connected to its granite counters, newly installed chandeliers and its private garden.

“The bike lane on Cathedral Street is a real asset,” he said. “So are the cultural places in Mount Vernon. And the restaurants too.”

Its longtime occupant, General Riggs, an 1883 Princeton graduate, was a brigadier general in the Maryland National Guard who led the protection of downtown Baltimore after the 1904 fire. He also headed the school and police boards and was a Peabody Conservatory trustee for decades.

The general, who was a bachelor, lived in the house with his brother, Alfred. The Enoch Pratt Free Library checked the 1930 census for the property and found that it listed another family member, Georgia Bright, who was related to the general’s mother. Curiously, there was only one live-in servant. She was Elizabeth Ginsaule and in 1930 was 78 years old.

When Riggs died in 1940, The Baltimore Sun noted that he “was one of the few elderly citizens of wealth who chose to remain a resident of the old city. His house on Cathedral Street was close to his office, and it was his custom to walk down in the morning and to walk home in the afternoon. He was no average figure. A tall man and a slender one, he held himself with scrupulous erectness, as became a man who had so long served in uniform.”

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