House auction Growing trend: The owner of a distinctive 1938 home has joined the ranks of sellers turning to auctions for a quick sale


Every so often, Nancy Niles glances out a front window and discovers a Mercedes or a BMW taking a turn around her cul-de-sac.

Such traffic comes as an encouraging sign to someone who's about to put her custom estate home on the auction block. Few people find their way by chance to the dead-end street in wooded, secluded Poplar Hill, in an affluent part of North Baltimore.

Mrs. Niles, the daughter-in-law of a prominent Baltimore judge who commissioned the Art Deco-style house in 1938, believes the curiosity-seekers driving by must be potential buyers. On Saturday, when the bidding is set to begin, she'll find out for sure.

In a buyer's market where houses can languish for months with no takers, Mrs. Niles has joined the ranks of sellers turning to auctions for a quick sale. No longer are sales to the highest bidder just a last-ditch resort of property owners in bankruptcy. By the end of the decade, auctions are expected to account for nearly a third of all residential sales, the National Association of Realtors says.

For Mrs. Niles, who first tried traditional marketing, listing the home with a real estate agent, the decision to sell hasn't come easily. She has lived in the home since 1980, when she and her husband, E. Hamilton Niles Jr., inherited it. Mr. Niles died in 1985, and Mrs. Niles is ready for a smaller place.

"It's left me with wonderful memories," said Mrs. Niles, an interior designer, recalling how she and her husband, a contemporary architect, tore out the house's interior and gave it a make-over, opened it for a house and garden tour, and threw parties where guests would spill into all the rooms. "We did a lot of entertaining. People just felt free to roam all over, or sit on the porch. The party was inside or outside -- wherever you wanted it to be.

"It's been very emotional," she said. "There's so much of us and our marriage in this house."

The red brick house with beige shutters at 5600 Waycrest Lane has stayed in the Niles family for more than a half-century, since architect John H. Scharf designed it for Emory H. Niles. Judge Niles, a member of the Baltimore Supreme Bench for nearly 25 years and its chief judge for eight, was known for his outspoken advocacy of prison, police and judicial reform and for the unsuccessful "Niles Plan," which proposed selecting judges outside the realm of politics by having a mixed commission of lawyers and laymen nominate judicial candidates.

When Judge Niles commissioned Mr. Scharf in 1938, the architect was a 51-year-old partner in Wyatt & Nolting. The architectural firm, founded in 1889, had grown into one of the largest and best-known in the city during the first half of the century. The firm designed hundreds of buildings, both commercial and residential, including the Roland Park Shopping Center and many homes in Roland Park, said James T. Wollon, chairman of the Historic Architects Roundtable, part of the Baltimore Architecture Foundation.

"The firm employed a lot of architects who went on to become important," among them Edward H. Glidden and James R. Edmunds, Mr. Wollon said.

"My father-in-law said to do the house in the mode of the day," said Mrs. Niles. She believes it was among the first homes in the city to be built with a flat roof.

The Emory Niles House is noted in "A Guide to Baltimore Architecture," by John Dorsey and James D. Dilts. "Long and narrow with a flat roof and facing away from the street, the Niles House was considered modern for its time and surroundings," the guide says.

The quiet neighborhood has remained among the city's most sought-after, with a mix of home styles and sizes that have sold in a range from $160,000 to $540,000 during the past few years.

The home is more horizontal than tall. The clearest view is from the back, where the house appears to have three sections, two square and geometrical, the third a graceful, curved wall. Wisteria vines, planted when the house was first built, wind their way up the brick walls and drape over a frame on an upper deck. Adding to the linear look are rows of ribbon windows across the house.

From the cul-de-sac out front, much of the home is hidden from view. You can see the bricked-in driveway, the flat roof, the curved entrance with narrow columns flanking the door. But the rest of the facade stretches out of sight, blending into large, leafy trees.

The home opens into a dramatic two-story foyer. A wide staircase, illuminated by a large front window, curves up to a second-floor balcony. The original African gumwood trim outlines doorways and the living room fireplace.

The living and dining rooms, in the central portion of the house, are large and airy with high ceilings and windows lining the walls. The kitchen and garage sit off to one side, while a guest suite and study with built-in bookcases and French doors occupy the opposite wing.

The home has a two-car garage, six bedrooms, five and a half bathrooms, three fireplaces. The bricked-in patio runs the span of the living room and study, partially covered by a roof that serves as an upper deck to the master bedroom.

Traditional furnishings

When the judge lived there with his wife, son and two daughters, they furnished the home traditionally, with antiques, Persian rugs, and heavy draperies.

By 1980, five years after the judge died, his widow, Anne, was ready to move. Their son and daughter-in-law prepared to move in.

Hamilton Niles had become a contemporary architect, opening his own firm in the late 1950s and designing many of Towson's contemporary buildings during the 1960s. He gained recognition for designing the system of lifesaving stations at the Inner Harbor. His firm teamed with another to design the Greater Baltimore Medical Center during the 1960s.

Contemporary flavor

The architect and his wife, who had studied art at the Maryland Institute College of Art, decided to give the house a contemporary flavor, in keeping with Mr. Niles' work. Mrs. Niles recalls the skeptics among family and friends who wondered whether the couple should change Mr. Niles' boyhood home.

"Everyone said, 'He has a vested interest. You and he will fight like cats and dogs,' " she said.

But they both saw a need to update the house, in keeping with its original style.

"Our ideas were to lighten it up, to take off a lot of the doors, to do the walls in a textured manner and change the bathrooms and kitchen," she said. "The vision was so easy for us because of our careers. This is what we do, and we had great fun doing it. We brought each of our areas of expertise. He designed some furniture, and I picked out finishes."

They spent an intense six months redesigning and redecorating. They removed doors and knocked out walls to enlarge small rooms and improve flow. They uncovered the tall, rectangular windows, added a skylight in the foyer and dotted the light-filled home with plants and small trees.

They covered hardwood floors with neutral carpeting and had an artist spackle the thick plaster walls, creating a textured look that provided a backdrop for Mrs. Niles' bold, contemporary paintings. They enlarged and remodeled the kitchen, originally a series of small rooms, including an ironing room, a cold storage room and a small cooking area. They landscaped, creating a sitting area in the back yard that backs to the tall, 100-year-old poplar trees that shade the yard and give the neighborhood its name.

The on-site auction of the house, by Express Auction Marketing Specialists, will start at 11 a.m. Saturday. Bill Wrightson, a real estate specialist who has been making appointments for private showings, said auctions create excitement about a property while allowing the sellers to control the terms and conditions of the sale.

"We live in a faster-paced society, and it's a faster way to go," he said. "The auction method focuses on a particular date. Everyone who is interested will have to be there and in competition."

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