HISTORY ON HAMILTON STREET Built about 1816, house retains all of its 19th century charm

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When the wide house at 16 W. Hamilton St. went up in the 1810s it had five fireplaces -- an opulent total for the early years of the republic. It still has them, and they all work.

And today it also has Faith Pearson Nevins and John Hawks. She's an A.I.A. with Marks, Thomas and Associates Inc., Baltimore architects. He runs a medical counseling agency called Comsort that deals with patient-relations education for physicians. They both love the setting for convenience and generous space.

Both their jobs are based in Charles Village, about 20 blocks north. "Downtown" is a good fit for them, a nice-weather walk-to-work affair.

No. 16 (it adjoins the recherche Hamilton Street men's club) is that surprising survival -- a nine-room, family-sized home in the very center of center city that still has its basic format after almost two centuries. Robert Cary Long is the reputed architect of the row, in a neighborhood that has had some famous one-time residents, including Thomas Corner, 19th century landscape artist, and Meredith Janvier, 1880s journalist and bon vivant.

The house was in place before they finished the Washington column or the Battle Monument in Court Square, among noble relics of the home's period. Once there were many hundreds of houses of the era south of Monument Street. They dotted the slopes of the near east side where Preston Gardens now stands. Today they are mostly gone, except where they begin again in Federal Hill or survive in preserved islands like Seton Hill and Sterling Street. But by the 1930s a census showed that less than a dozen single-family Mount Vernon homes were occupied. The vast majority had been converted into apartments or businesses.

"We moved in two years ago in August," says Mr. Hawks.

The first thing you notice in the cozy house is not the many fireplaces. It's the fenestration. Here are wide, three-sectioned windows of a type architect Robert Mills used in helping create the Greek Revival style. Ms. Nevins has left them undraped to increase light levels, especially in a second-floor formal living room fronting on the main street that "tends to be dark."

These are windows, be it remembered, that might have rattled in 1814 during the great assault on Fort McHenry, the 2,000 mortar bombs bursting in air, the rockets' red glare and all of that. However, according to some reports, the row houses in the block weren't built until 1816. Apparently not all the windows were broken over the years, because "some of the original glass has obviously survived," reports Mr. Hawks.

The couple has furnished every one of the home's nine rooms and freshened up its 4.5 baths.

An attractive feature of the house is the tavernlike, first-floor mud room, just off an entrance hall floored in black and white tile. The fireplace wall of the room includes floor-to-ceiling, 18th century walnut paneling installed by a longtime occupant of the home, Thomas Byrd of the famous Virginia clan.

"The paneling is English walnut, but we believe Byrd brought it to Baltimore from Charleston, S.C.," Mr. Hawks says. A hallway is furnished with a marble pier table, baroque pedestals and a marble top rescued from a neighbor's back yard and cleaned up.

At the rear of the first floor is a studio room that offers Ms. Nevins space for architectural projects. It leads to a large garden as wide as the house (20 feet), where party overflows have been accommodated. The garden features one of the largest Mongolian larches in Maryland, said to have been imported from Byrd family gardens in Virginia.

A drop-leaf table used in the first-floor mud room was made by Mr. Hawks' great-grandfather, a Charlestown, W.Va., carriage maker and a commissary officer for General Stonewall Jackson. According to family legend, the immortal Stonewall "planned his famous Shenandoah valley campaign on that table."

Ms. Nevins' family also contributed pieces to the furnishing of No. 16. The house was once occupied by John S. Pearson, appraiser and antique expert, the architect's uncle, and from his collection originated some major pieces, including the living room's handsome c. 1820 English walnut linen press, used by the couple as an electronic center, and the American empire sideboard in the dining room, topped in the green marble popular in the "Gone with the Wind" epoch.

The stately living room features a mirrored fireplace wall, George II chairs and a classic sofa.

Twin Georgian niches on each side of the dining room fireplace house antique china pieces, and two major paintings are focal points in the room. One is an Italian woman done in the baroque style and another is "Uncle Howard." The gilt-framed uncle is an "instant ancestor," a mid-19th century portrait of an unknown gentleman that the couple named after the Howard Street antique district where they found the artwork.

The third floor of the house features a large bedroom centered by a Victorian walnut bed. Two similar rooms at the rear of this floor serve as study and TV areas. Bookcases line the walls. One of the home's treasures is a print of a Whistler original, made from plates after the artist's death.

A bright and fanciful guest room on the fourth floor with a decorative iron bed completes the home's ensemble.

The walls of the house are decorated with antique photos and prints, and Orientals throughout the home give warmth to the original flooring, much of which is painted in white or red tones.

"Until 1940, the five fireplaces heated the whole place," Mr. Hawks reveals. Now, on crisp days, the fireplaces continue to add their warmth from the second floor up.

Except for trips to work, "We rarely get above North Avenue," says Ms. Nevins of the couple's lifestyle.

Two antique bikes, bought (for $30 each) in a Broadway shop, help out with transportation. The couple are enthusiastic theatergoers and find the center city supplies this leisure asset.

They insist the only real problem to downtown living is parking. "We pay parking tickets when we get them," says Mr. Hawks. But at that, he adds "we spend less time and money trying to park in the neighborhood than we would mowing lawns."

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