The brick house in Baltimore County’s Turner Station would be little different from its neighbors were it not for its famous occupant: Henrietta Lacks.
A plaque near the front door tells the story of the African American woman who died of cervical cancer complications and whose preserved cancer cells live on in medical research.
Lacks’ image appears on that historic marker. She posed for the photo steps away on her home’s concrete porch.
This 1942 brick home, built as the country was fighting World War II, will be renovated in a few months. It has been occupied continuously since it was built and now needs the help it’s about to get.
The home remains as it was nearly 80 years ago. Its old coal furnace is gone, but the originals walls and hardwood floors and staircase remain, as do its original bathtub and plumbing.
From its masonry front steps, a wide swath of Bear Creek and Sparrows Point is clearly visible on a winter morning.
“The work on it certainly needed to be done. It was built in the 1940s, and nothing significant was done since then,” said Mary Coleman, chair of the Turner Station Historical Society.
The renovation of the Lackses’ home at 713 New Pittsburgh Ave. is part of a $35 million renovation effort that began more than three years ago, when Charles “Chuck” Tini, a 1992 Johns Hopkins University graduate and Towson resident, bought much of what is known as Lyon Homes.
The Lyon Homes development was named for Ernest Lyon, a Baltimore African American clergyman who was consul to Liberia. He died in 1938; the Turner Station housing development was named for him.
Tini explains that Lyon Homes was a 1942 federal housing project for workforce housing, primarily for African Americans, during World War II.
The whole campus was designed by a prominent African American architect, Hilyard Robinson, who lived in Washington.
“Just as Henrietta Lacks’ story needs to be told, so does Hilyard Robinson’s,” said Tini. “He was a prominent Black architect who left an incredible legacy. This is a great neighborhood he made. These are phenomenal residents here too. We are lucky to be working here.”
He noted that the homes, designed in duplex units with generous green spaces and mature trees, are mixed with a number of private residences.
“It was a new house, with a nice new gas stove. Henrietta had never cooked before on anything but a wood stove,” David Lacks, her husband, said in a 1997 interview in The Sun.
Justin Little, project manager for Southway Homes and a Morgan State University graduate, is supervising the renovations, installing a moisture barrier in the crawl space and other energy-saving devices for these properties that were originally constructed without a basement.
Little and his crew are rebuilding joists affected by the moisture often found in properties adjacent to water. They are refinishing floors, adding central air conditioning, new windows, roofs, lighting, showers, kitchens and first-floor powder rooms where the coal furnaces once stood.
“We manage a lot of properties, and the people in this community drew us to Lyon Homes,” Tini said. “They are bedrock — hardworking and thoughtful. They care about their neighborhood.”
So far, 118 units in Lyon Homes are finished and occupied, completed in 2018. Work started again in late 2020. Tini expects all the home rehabs to be completed by early 2022.
Derek Seawell, a native of Turner Station, lives near the former Lacks residence in one of the newly refurbished homes.
“It’s a great neighborhood. It’s family-oriented,” he said. “Different people move in here, but we, the old-timers, adjust. It’s Turner Station for life.”