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Trading in the suburbs for the city


When Paul and Diane Snyder told friends and family they were leaving their modern four-bedroom Colonial house in Carney and moving to an old house in Butchers Hill, in downtown Baltimore, everyone said they were crazy.

"Some of them just sort of stared at me and shook their heads," Ms. Snyder said, sitting in the parlor of their light-filled, three-story townhouse on East Pratt Street. The house, with its carefully sought-out antique furnishings, deep colors and deft touches in the decor, will be one of a dozen in the neighborhood open to the public at the Butchers Hill House Tour from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Oct. 15.

It was the last neighborhood house tour two years ago that drew the Snyders from the suburbs. They read about the tour in the newspaper and decided to check it out. "We saw a lot of houses with a lot of charm and a lot of potential," Mr. Snyder said.

"When I walked in the first house, right in the doorway, and saw the wood floors, the high ceilings, the crown molding, I said, 'I want to move here,' " Ms. Snyder said. "It was only half a joke."

The Snyders' house is fairly representative of the east-west streets of the East Baltimore neighborhood, a brick-front, three-story rowhouse with high ceilings, an eccentric interior layout (a combination of big rooms and tiny rooms) and, from at least one window, a harbor view. The neighborhood is bound by the south side of Fayette Street on the north, the south side of Pratt Street on the south, Patterson Park Avenue on the east and the west side of Washington Street on the west.

There's a wide range in the state, style and size of houses on the tour, said Susan Noonan, chairwoman of this year's tour. "One was done by a contractor and has all new wiring and so on, and one still has the original gaslights," Ms. Noonan said. "One was done by an interior decorator, and has some bold, bright colors." And some of the houses are smaller than the Snyders', two-story dwellings typical of those on the north-south axis streets.

Despite the appeal of the neighborhood, the Snyders didn't leap headlong into the new lifestyle.

"Of course, there was the agonizing decision, do we really want to move, and all the concerns that I guess anybody would have, the safety of the city and things like that," Mr. Snyder said. "So we would come up late at night and walk around the neighborhood and get a sense of it. Diane came in one day and walked along with the mailman."

"I didn't plan that, it just sort of happened," Ms. Snyder said. "He was there and I just started talking to him, and he told me about the neighborhood."

"We found that the people we talked to by and large were really friendly," Mr. Snyder said. "And we learned that the community association was active and a viable entity. They had all the right concerns about crime, and the disintegration of houses and keeping the streets clean."

The house was in "good condition" when they moved in in April 1994, Mr. Snyder said. "We saw houses that had to be gutted. This one was almost completely done."

Floors and moldings throughout the house are original, and the curving front staircase is intact to the last baluster. The two biggest changes the Snyders made were to return the doorway from the hall into the parlor to its original expansive size (it had been reduced to one 3-foot-wide doorway), and to tear out a laundry room that took up one corner of the kitchen. There's room in the kitchen for a narrow table with two chairs.

The Snyders have used light colors for most of the walls; the deep peach walls and Chinese red trim of the parlor and front hall extend all the way up the front staircase. In the dining room, gray leaf-patterned paper is set off by a deep chair-rail-height border in rich greens and reds; below that the wall is painted a creamy pale green.

The house is furnished almost entirely in antiques. Some of them, like a carved wood and upholstery settee and chair in the living room, were family pieces, and some, like the gilt pier mirror in the first-floor hall, are serendipitous finds from antiques and consignment shops.

They have done much of the work on the house themselves. Ms. Snyder does the painting, and Mr. Snyder built the bookcases that line the family room. To renovate a closet in the master bedroom, however, they turned to Mr. Snyder's son Mark, a contractor.

Future plans for the house include restoring some antique touches to bathrooms that were extensively modernized by previous owners, exploring getting the house's three fireplaces working again, "and maybe a rooftop deck," Mr. Snyder said. "We both get a kick out of doing things for the house."

They don't miss the suburbs, though Ms. Snyder has a rTC moment's regret for her big yard on behalf of the family's dogs, Alex, the giant schnauzer, and Beau, the Airedale terrier. "We could let the dogs out and let them run. Now we have to walk them in the park." Parking has been less of a problem than friends predicted, and, a surprise benefit, the commute to work in Towson is much easier, because they are traveling against the traffic.

Although Mr. Snyder, a lawyer, still maintains an office in Towson, he's made his move to the city complete by opening an office in a small building just steps from his house. "We met a neighbor who was opening a dog-grooming business in the same building," Mr. Snyder said. I made contact with the building owner, and we hit it off right away. They did some renovation for me, and I moved in in mid-March."

Being in the city has changed the Snyders' outlook on some things. "We both have a higher interest in history, and in Baltimore, than when we lived in the county," Mr. Snyder said. Both have links to the past in the area; both of their mothers lived in Highlandtown at one time, and Mr. Snyder's great-great-grandfather worked in the Shot Tower.

"It's been amazing, the things that have popped out" and made connections for the new city dwellers, Ms. Snyder said.

"The city's a terrific place to be," Mr. Snyder said. "I'd like to see more people make that positive commitment."

Tickets for the 1995 Butchers Hill House Tour are $6 per person in advance; call (410) 522-6773. Tickets will be on sale at Park Fest, from noon to 5 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 14, in Patterson Park. On the day of the tour, tickets are $8 per person, and can be bought at the White House in Patterson Park, at the corner of Lombard Street and Patterson Park Avenue.

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