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Low-income apartments designed with loving care New Penn North Plaza wins raves from residents and planners alike BALTIMORE CITY


The federal government may have spent nearly $4 million to construct new apartments next to the Penn North subway station, but the highest praise at yesterday's opening ceremonies was bestowed on some of the least expensive touches.

Touches such as the ornate wallpaper in the residents' lounge near the front entrance.

Or the 17 sepia-toned photographs that depict Pennsylvania Avenue in the 1940s.

Or the green and white floor tiles in the kitchen of Theodore Burrell's fifth-floor apartment.

"They did a nice job," said the 62-year-old retired painter, who moved in a week ago. "I'm very lucky to be here."

"I think it's gorgeous," agreed Ruby Thomas, a neighborhood resident who attended the dedication. "Anybody who can't live here, there's something wrong with them."

Ms. Thomas and Mr. Burrell were among more than 200 people who gathered for the dedication of Penn North Plaza, a $3.9 million, 66-unit apartment complex at the northeast corner of Pennsylvania and North avenues in Baltimore.

Along with the new Nehemiah townhouses and recent renovations to the public library nearby, community leaders say, the apartment building is a sign of the rebirth of Pennsylvania Avenue.

The six-story brick building was constructed by a joint venture of the Baltimore Corporation for Housing Partnerships and St. Katherine's of Alexandria Episcopal Church for senior citizens with low and moderate incomes.

Menefee and Associates was the architect and Joy Owens Interiors was the interior designer.

From the blue columns and clock tower on the exterior to the bright Romare Bearden prints on the walls inside, the individualistic touches reflect a new and more creative approach to the design of federally funded housing in Baltimore -- and one that may take hold elsewhere.

"That's what this project is all about -- attempting to take it out of the institutional setting and make it comfortable, so people are proud to live there," said city Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III.

"We were determined that we were going to have a building that embraced our residents, embraced our community -- one that people will feel at home in, not alienated from," said Patricia Massey, executive director of the housing partnership.

Drawing much of the praise for the result was Joy Owens, who took up interior design as a second career and now specializes in design for low-income housing.

She is also the sister of Mr. Henson, a former developer who served for many years on the partnership's board before becoming housing commissioner this spring.

He said during his remarks that he is very proud of his sister's work at Penn North.

Ms. Owens explained yesterday that she worked for many years taking surveys for the U.S. census bureau and visited plenty of public housing.

When she became a designer, she said, she wanted to demonstrate that low-income housing doesn't have to be drab.

Her eye is best shown in her selection of Paul Henderson photographs for the first floor that are on permanent loan from the Peale Museum -- a snowball man, a wedding party, Pearl Bailey in her dressing room, women picketing Ford's Theater because blacks were not allowed.

"It doesn't look like low-income housing," said Ms. Owens said of the interior. "We tried to make it look more like a home. . . . You could put this in the county and charge a lot of money."

Use of color is the most inexpensive way to make a difference, she added, citing the greens and pinks that brighten the community room.

"It doesn't cost any more to do colors than it does to do beige or brown," she said.

Arthur Creigler, president of the nonprofit group that developed the project, said it's drawn nothing but praise from the residents who have moved in so far.

"It may be called Penn North Plaza," he said. "But to us, it's Penn North Castle."

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