19th-century Canton house became his obsession


After reaching the top of the narrow staircase and gingerly testing his weight on the rooftop deck jutting out from the vacant, sagging rowhouse, David Naumann realized he had to have this sad, old home in Canton.

The panorama unfolding before him cinched the deal. Craning his neck left, he could see the Key Bridge; right, he glimpsed Baltimore's Inner Harbor. The view couldn't be improved. But the moldering three stories under his feet needed work.

And so, in the five years since he first clambered out onto the deck -- while his living has come from running the popular Bay Cafe at nearby Tindeco Wharf -- Mr. Naumann's obsession has been this 19th-century home on South Montford Avenue.

"I just walked out on the roof, and then it all started to come together . . . what I wanted to do," said the 36-year-old Baltimorean, whose home was featured recently on the Maryland House and Garden Pilgrimage.

What he wanted to do was join in the revival of the southeastern Baltimore waterfront neighborhood established two centuries ago by Capt. John O'Donnell, a trader who made his fortune in Asia. The 18th-century plantation he named after a Chinese port became a safe harbor for thousands of immigrants who raised their families in the narrow rowhouses, worked in the canneries and built the factories lining the shore east of Fells Point.

The home he rescued, sitting in a block near South Montford's intersection with Foster Avenue -- across from a recently opened restaurant, The Wild Mushroom -- was precisely the sort of dwelling that needed to be renovated to keep Canton from the decay that has eroded many old neighborhoods. It had been empty for two years and bore the ravages of neglect. All the rear windows had been blown out.

"The whole back end was open. Lots of water damage," said Mr. Naumann. The flooring was warped and ruined, and the original brick of the interior walls was obscured by "tons and tons of plaster."

Daunting as well was the floor plan. The house is narrow and long, a dozen feet wide for its 52-foot length, and nine rooms originally divided up the nearly 2,400 square feet, including a basement.

One of Mr. Naumann's earliest decisions was to knock down most interior walls. Today, the first floor is open from front to back. The front is given over to a sitting area that flows naturally into a dining section and then to a kitchen.

Mr. Naumann tore out plaster, exposing and repointing the brick walls that form the sides of the dwelling for its length. On the first floor, one wall has been recloaked with Sheetrock and generous coats of paint. Mr. Naumann also installed new 3-inch, 5-inch and 6-inch pine boards for flooring. Only the original windows remain because he "can't stand new windows."

But it is the way Mr. Naumann has decorated the first floor that is so distinctive. An inveterate scavenger of all things antique to campy, he has transformed the first level into a gallery of kitsch. A wood cabinet with glass front and shelves salvaged from a Frederick department store now holds old product tins and labels . . . an American Can piggy bank, a container that once poured Boraxo, an empty can of Prince Albert tobacco. There's even an "I Love the Beatles" pin.

The kitchen would be familiar to any Depression baby; all the appliances are dated, from the ammonia-cooled Westinghouse refrigerator (pre-CFC days) to the old Hoosier cabinet with porcelain counter and flour sifter.

The sink was a 1920s vintage that a friend was throwing out. An old ladder suspended horizontally from the ceiling suspends pots and pans. Mr. Naumann has restored the tin ceiling that is trademark Canton. The newest appliance in the kitchen is the 1950s-era Coke machine.

Off the kitchen is a patio built from the bricks Mr. Naumann saved when he tore out the third-floor fireplace. "I don't throw anything out," he adds, needlessly. But dominating the outdoors is an eight-person hand-carved, rock Jacuzzi that was built by his brother to resemble a mountain waterfall.

Back inside, a spiral staircase runs up through the second and third floors, a staircase that he installed to replace the steps. The second floor has been converted into an open loft that functions as a bedroom and office. The third floor serves as the airy master bedroom, illuminated by a large irregularly shaped window; the room is divided by a large walk-in closet. A surprise is provided by an old armoire that opens up to reveal a miniature kitchen.

Off the third floor is the deck where Mr. Naumann and the rowhouse first came to terms.

"This is as peaceful as you can get," he said one day recently on that deck, surveying the top of Federal Hill, Henderson's Wharf, the Domino Sugar plant, Harbor View and City Hall.

"You can come up here all day and not be bothered by anyone. And at night, the downtown view is spectacular."

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