Art Deco house sells low Auction brings $324,000 price in Poplar Hill


They were largely a collection of Dreamers and Neighbors -- with only a few Bidders -- who assembled yesterday in a wide semicircle on a sloping back yard of the North Baltimore subdivision called Poplar Hill.

In less than 15 minutes, the majestic Art Deco home constructed by a prominent city judge in 1938 and later restored by his architect son and designer daughter-in-law, was sold at auction for the bargain-basement price of $324,000. The asking price was $495,000, and the property was assessed for $423,000.

Nancy Niles, the daughter-in-law of the late Baltimore Supreme Bench Judge Emory H. Niles, sat alone in the living room, listening to the melodic rapid-fire delivery of auctioneer Larry Makowski and thinking only of a high price. Perched on a large brown ottoman, she said over and over to herself, "I hope and I hope."

Since deciding to sell, she has dealt with the memories of having restored this five-bedroom, two-story brick home with her husband, "Ham," in 1980. He died five years later.

"It was very difficult to talk about leaving it," she said after the curious three-dozen who came for the auction had left.

Yesterday's Dreamers, Neighbors and Bidders started arriving 40 minutes early on the leafy cul-de-sac.

There were architects and builders, old friends, neighbors and a few like Harriet Toback and Selma Highkin, two friends -- and Dreamers -- from Pikesville.

"I like to see how other people live and go back to my hovel," Mrs. Toback said with a chuckle, peering into the upstairs bathroom. Forgetting her brick ranch in a tract neighborhood for a minute, she talked of the sun-drenched sitting room and porch off the master bedroom. "The landscaping is beautiful," she said.

Dreamer Larry Mullen, a retired architect who lives in Federal Hill, said after passing through the wide foyer, which opens to the second floor and is crowned with a circular skylight: "It's very inviting. It asks you to come in. You don't see many like it."

Many Neighbors, greeting each other, declined to be interviewed. One, a distinguished Alistair Cooke look-alike, remembered dinner parties with the judge, "a great guy" who built one of Baltimore's first modern homes with a flat roof.

As the time for bidding arrived, Mr. Makowski, president of Expres$ Auction Marketing Specialists of Baltimore told the gathering: "You have an opportunity today to buy a property that is unique."

He asked for $400,000 and then opened at $200,000, the numbers flying past in a blur, a tape recorder on fast forward.

The auctioneer's singsong cadence swept over the audience, which was as quiet and well-mannered as a corporate board. At times, Mr. Makowski coaxed the reluctant Bidders. "Cheap price!" he said at one point. "You can't buy the lot for that!"

The bidding stopped at $315,000, an offer by Nancy Lumpkin and William Constantine of Roland Park. Under the auction's rules, Mrs. Niles had to accept the bid before the house could be determined sold.

After consulting with her, Mr. Makowski emerged from the living room and announced: "She wants it sold. We're going to sell."

The price rose slightly as John Hutchins, a Cleveland transplant, inched it to $323,000 and then abandoned the quest -- after calculating the 10 percent auctioneer fee added to the sale price.

"I still have a home in Cleveland," he said later. "I have four grown children -- and a wife who likes big houses."

What made Mr. Constantine eager to up the bidding?

"I'd say the location," said the building contractor, looking out the dining room's bay window to the soaring poplars, magnolias and chestnut trees lining the back.

Some of the curious yesterday said the house's casement windows and lack of air-conditioning and cosmetic upgrades were among the reasons for the low sales price.

Surprised by the final bid being as low as it was, Mrs. Niles said she was nevertheless ready for the sale effort to end. She preferred, she said, to recall the good times at the house she and her husband inherited in 1980: the meals on the brick patio, buying sculpture and furniture. Now living in a two-bedroom townhouse at the nearby Village of Cross Keys, Mrs. Niles said she was uncertain if she will come by to see how the Art Deco house will change again. "I don't know if I will or not," she said. "I think I'd rather have the memories."

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