Back when North Baltimore was suburbia, the Gallagher Mansion looked like just another city resident's country villa, one of many dotting the former Govanstown landscape along York Road.
A doctor first lived behind the thick stone walls in the mid-1800s, treating patients in a side room. Later, the family of a local grocer put down roots that spread over three generations.
Today, tangled vines wind their way up the boarded, rotting shell of the 17-room manor house. The still imposing mansion seems out of time and place in waist-high grass, behind a Ford dealership, across the lane from a townhouse development.
Mostly vacant and neglected since the early 1970s, it has escaped the wrecking ball and survived fires, vandals, a leaking roof -- even art students with a penchant for knocking out walls.
Long the prize in a battle between preservationists and developers with visions of offices and parking lots, 431 Notre Dame Lane is on the verge of becoming a home once again.
By next year, the Govans Ecumenical Development Corp. (GEDCO), a nonprofit housing developer, expects to complete the $3.4 million restoration and expansion of the three-story, gray mansion into 40 one-bedroom subsidized apartments for senior citizens. Construction will begin in August.
For more than a decade, residents of Govans' neighborhoods east of Notre Dame and Loyola colleges such as Radnor-Winston, along with members of local churches, have had two goals -- restore an historic landmark and allow it to help revitalize the York Road corridor.
The plans, embraced by neighborhood groups, will accomplish both, said Kathleen Stringfield, a Radnor-Winston resident and neighborhood member of GEDCO's Gallagher board.
"It's another sign that people are here and staying here and not running to the county," Ms. Stringfield said.
No one doubts that residents will come, especially in a city where hundreds of senior citizens on fixed incomes wait for openings in subsidized apartments.
In surveying nearby senior housing, GEDCO found most buildings had waiting lists of at least a year, said Julia Pierson, executive director. Fifty or more names on a given building's waiting list is typical, one manager of senior apartments said.
GEDCO cleared one of its final hurdles in a two-year effort to redevelop the mansion when it got final word early this month on financing through the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. HUD will provide a $2.5 million construction grant to the 3-year-old corporation of churches and community groups and to its co-sponsor, Presbyterian Homes Inc., a nonprofit housing provider.
Another $900,000 in grants for restoration will come from Baltimore City and from the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation. The city also will donate the 2.2-acre site and mansion, which it acquired in 1985.
GEDCO plans to transform the mansion into six apartments on the second and third floors and build an L-shaped wing in the rear with 34 units plus a manager's unit, Ms. Pierson said. Each apartment will have a living room, dining room, kitchen, bedroom, storage space and use of the floor's laundry room.
The mansion's five first-floor rooms -- originally used as a doctor's office, reception hall, parlor, living/dining area and kitchen -- will be converted to residents' meeting, dining and activity rooms and a kitchen. Working with a preservationist architect, GEDCO intends to restore much of the original woodwork in the once formal rooms.
The apartments -- open to people 62 or older who can live independently or with minimal daily assistance -- are expected to help fill an unmet, increasing need for affordable housing. Rent will be 30 percent of a resident's income. Eligibility is limited to individuals earning up to $17,300 and couples making up to $19,750.
"Finding affordable housing is a very significant problem for a large percentage of the elderly population," said Ilene Rosenthal, chief of housing and long-term care for the Maryland Office on Aging.
"Many people find their post-retirement income is not sufficient to buy market-rate housing. Even those seniors who owned homes, many have access to the equity but have to make that last. Their biggest fear is they're going to outlive their money."
At least 50 senior citizens are waiting for affordable apartments at each of 10 buildings Wallace H. Campbell and Co. Inc. manages in Baltimore, said R. Bruce Campbell, president. With only a 10 percent turnover rate, the buildings accept new applications only every few years, Mr. Campbell said.
"These are great buildings to manage because the people are always very nice, they pay their rent on time, and they take care of the place," he said.
But to develop, they usually require government subsidies, which have become less and less available, housing officials said. GEDCO, which expects to complete the apartments by next spring, will begin taking applications after Jan. 1.
The redevelopment also includes restoration of the exterior of the home, which was built around 1855 in the Italianate style -- the mid-19th century's interpretation of Italian Renaissance architecture, said James T. Wollon of Havre de Grace, preservation architect consultant for Gallagher. The house was designed as "a sophisticated residence of a prosperous individual," when it was built for Dr. Benjamin Woods, Mr. Wollon said.
Dr. Woods had come from Howard County and served in the Army under the command of Gen. (and future President) Zachary Taylor in the campaign against the Seminole Indians. For a time he was the only physician practicing in Govanstown -- then a rural area five miles outside the city. The early 19th-century opening of the York Road turnpike had spawned hotels, taverns and a tollbooth.
Because an exterior door led to a mansion side room -- a room simpler in design than two others in front -- Mr. Wollon believes the physician had his office there.
House changed hands
The mansion changed hands in 1866, purchased by New Yorker Rachel Vaughn, about whom no information has been found. In 1873, the home was bought by Patrick T. Gallagher, an Irish immigrant who had opened one of the area's first grocery businesses.
He commissioned Edmund G. Lind, known for his design of the Peabody Conservatory of Music, to design an ornamental slate mansard roof, which also gave the mansion its third story and an extra five rooms.
The home stayed in the Gallagher family almost 100 years, from Mr. Gallagher's children to his grandchildren. Two of his granddaughters, Antoinette and Martha Bokel, lived in the house until 1972, when they sold it to the now-defunct Sherwood Ford car dealership.
While Sherwood owned the property, two entrepreneurs rented part of the mansion and started Polk Audio there. It is believed that during that period, students from the Maryland Institute, College of Art rented rooms upstairs and knocked out walls to create a studio, damaging the roof.
As the house fell victim to fires, vandals and weather damage, it rotted inside. Doors, moldings, windows, shutters and marble mantels disappeared.
A plan to raze the building and expand the former Ford dealership fell through.
In 1983, preservationists won a bid to list the house on the National Register of Historic Places, noting that it is one of the only intact 19th-century country houses left in the city.