MIRACLE IN UNION SQUARE Hardworking owner, family and friends are retrieving an old house from ruin

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Karen Darden's house was a mother's nightmare.

Need reasons? Take your pick. The three dead dogs in the back yard, maybe. A kitchen so crawling with cockroaches it looked as if the walls were moving. Non-locking doors and nonexistent windows. Holes in the ceiling from water damage, and holes in the walls from a former owner's indoor BB-gun practice.

Any one of these might be reason enough for a mom to say, "Not for my daughter!"

Ms. Darden's mother is made of stronger stuff, though. When she looked at the shabby three-story row house she didn't say, "You can't do this to me," but "We can do it!"

"My mom convinced me -- she conned me! -- into this place," says her daughter with a laugh.

"I have no idea what we saw in this place," Ms. Darden states -- but she does, of course. First of all, the 27-year-old accounting clerk and her mother, Sunny Bolander, saw a rock-bottom price. Then they noted the 110-year-old house's good-sized, nicely proportioned rooms. The block, right around the corner from Union Square, had attracted quite a few middle-class rehabbers and was, according to a passing policeman, reasonably free of serious crime.

But it was the neighbors themselves who really won them over.

"Every time we came here to look at the place -- I also came with my father, and I brought some friends by -- neighbors would always come rushing out, saying 'Are you thinking of buying this house? Welcome!' Everybody just fell over themselves to let me know how important it was to bring new people into the neigh

Karen Darden's house was a mother's nightmare.

Need reasons? Take your pick. The three dead dogs in the back yard, maybe. A kitchen so crawling with cockroaches it looked as if the walls were moving. Non-locking doors and nonexistent windows. Holes in the ceiling from water damage, and holes in the walls from a former owner's indoor BB-gun practice.

Any one of these might be reason enough for a mom to say, "Not for my daughter!"

Ms. Darden's mother is made of stronger stuff, though. When she looked at the shabby three-story row house she didn't say, "You can't do this to me," but "We can do it!"

"My mom convinced me -- she conned me! -- into this place," says her daughter with a laugh.

"I have no idea what we saw in this place," Ms. Darden states -- but she does, of course. First of all, the 27-year-old accounting clerk and her mother, Sunny Bolander, saw a rock-bottom price. Then they noted the 110-year-old house's good-sized, nicely proportioned rooms. The block, right around the corner from Union Square, had attracted quite a few middle class rehabbers and was, according to a passing policeman, reasonably free of serious crime.

But it was the neighbors themselves who really won them over.

"Every time we came here to look at the place -- I also came with my father, and I brought some friends by -- neighbors would always come rushing out, saying 'Are you thinking of buying this house? Welcome!' Everybody just fell over themselves to let me know how important it was to bring new people into the neighborhood who would rehab buildings like this."

Karen Darden began her house hunt following a broken engagement. She had intended to rent a downtown apartment close to her job, but when she spotted the "for sale by owner" card in the window, she decided to investigate.

"When we came in here, this was the scariest place you can imagine. It was so loaded with roaches that the Terminex man said it was the worst case he had ever seen!" exclaims Ms. Darden, an articulate, fine-boned woman who looks as if she should live in a place well-stocked with horses and golden retrievers, not creepy-crawlers.

She cheerfully offers horror story after horror story, proffering "before" photos and even a videotape to bolster her case. From the rats in the basement to the bags of trash in the living room and old auto parts in the tiny back yard, this was, no doubt about it, a dump. The bug problem really gave the women the shivers: When they returned home to Glen Burnie after looking at the house, they would rush around to the basement door, take off all their clothes, and immediately pop them in the washing machine.

But the house was, Ms. Darden knew, salvageable -- albeit with lots of elbow grease. After some negotiation, she signed a

contract in early August and took possession in mid-September. Financing was a problem, because no bank thought it worth its while to write up a mortgage on a house costing less than $30,000. So Ms. Bolander lent her daughter the money so that she could purchase the house with cash.

"I will not get a wedding, or a Christmas or birthday present, but I will own a house!" Ms. Darden says with a laugh.

Her mother has taken an active role in the renovation, too.

"My mom and I have always been handy," Ms. Darden explains. "When we lived in Annapolis we had a house that was 50-some years old, and the bathroom was a wreck. We decided to take it apart. We opened up the paneling on the bathroom walls and found rotted wood, and had to learn how to replace the wood, put up drywall and do all our own plastering and taping.

"I've had horses since I was 14, and we've always had to mend fences, fix leaking barns and build new stalls. We have all kinds of Black & Decker tools, and have done a lot of projects here and there. It's always the two of us. My stepfather is a business person, and can't hammer a nail for the life of him."

In addition to helping with the hands-on work, Ms. Bolander has carted off buckets of old plaster in her car, and bought pizzas for the gang of friends who have helped her daughter fix up the old house.

You don't know who your friends are until you tackle a project like this, Ms. Darden maintains, and she found that she had even more helpful friends than she expected. Among these are a former boyfriend, a heating and air-conditioning specialist; a cousin of her stepfather, who's an electrical expert; and a co-worker who showed up with her husband to hang drywall. Another friend, an architect, is planning a cathedral ceiling for a third-floor bedroom.

Neighbors have also lent tools and expertise, as well as moral support when it seemed as if she had taken on a project too big for her energies or her means.

"We all go through it. We can't stand our houses, we can't stand the rehab," one neighbor told her. "Just get that bedroom done. Make a list of your priorities, whatever they are. Fix it up to live, don't fix it up to be perfect."

"I wanted it perfect right off," Ms. Darden admits.

Ms. Darden's plan of action has been to concentrate on the main living areas first, so she can carry out her plan of moving in by Christmas.

The first step was to secure the house, with bars on the basement windows and an alarm system provided by her father, Tom Darden.

On the first floor, she scrubbed the kitchen area thoroughly, and bought a new stove and refrigerator. In the living room, she patched gaping holes in the walls and peeled up seven layers of linoleum. The floorboards underneath were unfortunately not in good shape, so she has laid down carpeting until she can afford new hardwood flooring.

In the hallway and on the second floor the floors were solid, so they were sanded and polyurethaned. The second floor bedroom got new walls and a stucco ceiling; the front wall had bowed out so much from "settling" that a whole new framework had to be installed for the drywall. Because the closet is only a few inches deep, Ms. Darden has divided a second bedroom into two spaces for a walk-in closet and a future bathroom. (The house's current bathroom, an obvious afterthought, is off the landing at the back of the house.)

The old ceilings have been ripped out of the third floor, and new support beams installed, but no cosmetic work has been done as yet. Ms. Darden plans to block off this floor until the more essential downstairs work has been completed.

"I haven't had a single contractor do anything yet," she says proudly. But she will hire a professional when it comes time to install the new bathroom -- complete with whirlpool tub.

When participants in the Union Square Christmas cookie tour (see box) arrive at Ms. Darden's house next Sunday, they will see not a splendidly restored Victorian, like many other houses on the tour, but a "work in progress" that she hopes will be a source of ideas for young prospective rehabbers. Eventually it will become a bright modern structure furnished with romantic touches, somewhere between, she says, IKEA and Laura Ashley.

While Ms. Darden's mother has been a major force in making the renovation a reality, inspiration has come from another source as well -- her late grandmother.

"Nothing in my life was ever settled," she says, her eyes tearing. "My grandmother would say, 'I want you to have a good stable job, and I would love to see you buy a house and get married.' When my boyfriend and I broke up she knew about it, but she died without knowing that I had bought this house. Every once and a while I think 'See what I've done so far? It's all because of you.' "

"She'd be real pleased right now, she really would. I don't think she'd believe I could do it without her."

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