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Barns reborn as castles Unique residences: Stores, churches, schools and barns are being transformed into charming homes.


For many, their home is their castle. For some, the castle was first a store, a church, a barn, or even a warehouse.

Throughout the Baltimore metropolitan region, developers and individuals have created unique residences using old churches,

stores, factories and schools, often incorporating original architectural elements such as high ceilings, large windows, hardwood floors, old doors, crown moldings and ceiling medallions.

BettyJean Murphy, president of Savannah Development Corp. in Baltimore, said her company specializes in "adaptive-reuse" projects because she believes they help "preserve the fabric of a neighborhood."

Although renovating older nonresidential buildings into residences is often more costly than new construction, the results are worth it, she said.

"It keeps the historic building in the community, so the scale of the community stays the same," she said. "It increases the solidarity of the community, the continuity. There is no question the product is of a higher aesthetic level."

The reasons individuals give for buying or creating unique homes in converted buildings are as varied as the buildings themselves.

Some, like artists, need large spaces for studios. Others, who want to run businesses from their homes, find storefronts and other urban structures more conducive to attracting business. Still others are interested in historic preservation and say converted buildings have more character and personality than new ones.

Chris and Karen Brown of Ellicott City launched a seven-month adaptive reuse project three years ago because of a stove.

Ms. Brown, who sells real estate for Trafalgar House, had inherited a large 1930s gas and oil stove from her grandparents.

When the couple decided to start a family, they looked for a single-family home, knowing they would soon outgrow their Owings Mills townhouse. But they wanted a house that would accommodate their stove.

Older homes they looked at wouldn't do because the kitchens were too small. And, although newer homes had bigger kitchens, the couple didn't think the stove would look right.

Then Mr. Brown, president of Integrity Construction, a custom home building company, drove past a 137-year-old barn in Howard County, once part of a large estate.

"I could barely see the 'For Sale' sign, there were so many weeds around it," Mr. Brown said. "But I started thinking, maybe we could convert this."

The real estate agent with the listing assumed that the barn would be razed and the buyer would build a new house on the half-acre lot. But the Browns launched a massive renovation and rebuilding process that transformed the old horse barn into an eight-room showplace, complete with living and dining rooms with 24-foot ceilings.

The barn's stone foundation was preserved and will be the backdrop to a large recreation and sun room that the couple will finish in the lower level.

"A lot of people come by and say, 'We'd love to do something like this,' " Mr. Brown said. "But we couldn't have thought about doing it if I didn't have the skills to do the work. It probably would have been too expensive."

Due west in Glenelg, Ingrid Melber bought two old churches connected by a former Sunday school, which she has transformed into her home and antiques store.

When she acquired the churches last year, a previous owner had already done some conversion work, turning the Sunday school classrooms into living quarters. Although Ms. Melber plans to do extensive renovations eventually, she can live in the school as is for the time being.

She set up her antiques business -- Westwood Unique Furnishings and Antiques -- in the newer church, built in 1920 when the Methodist congregation outgrew its smaller 1850s church. That structure now is rented to Westwood Lamp and Shade, a separate business.

One of the newer church's most striking features is its stained glass windows, which have survived intact. The large front window, reminiscent of a Tiffany design, dominates the large room serving as the antiques store.

Ms. Melber, who immigrated from Germany 15 years ago, said she bought the churches because she wanted a unique building for her business.

"I had been in a storefront in Laurel for three years, and I wouldn't go back to that," she said. "It didn't have to be a church, it could have been a barn. I just wanted an interesting building."

It's impossible to estimate how many nonresidential structures have been converted over the years, since many homeowners undertake the projects on their own. In Baltimore, warehouses, factories, office buildings, churches and old schools scattered throughout the city have been converted by a variety of developers over the years into condominiums, senior housing and low-income housing, as well as office and retail space and specialty uses.

In the suburbs, adaptive reuse projects range from old mills converted into offices, antiques malls and retail space to vacant elementary schools transformed into luxury condominiums.

Fred Struever, of Struever Bros., Eccles and Rouse, said the concept still appeals to many people because historical landmarks can be preserved and put to good use. The process is often more costly than new construction -- running $90 to $100 per square foot compared with $75 to $95 -- because "a lot of times you run into environmental factors, such as lead paint," he said.

Ms. Murphy, who has renovated three old schools for residential use, said old buildings present unique challenges but renovations needn't carry exorbitant price tags. "It depends on the project. It can be as low as $50 or $60 a square foot or as high as $100."

Even if renovation costs are higher, the trade-off is that older buildings often can be purchased for reduced or bargain prices.

The Browns bought their barn on a half-acre lot for $90,000. They spent close to that to rebuild the interior and rehab the exterior and now have a home assessed at $325,000.

Although federal tax laws have changed regarding the rehabilitation of older buildings, tax incentives still exist for building low-income and senior housing, and for rescuing buildings of historical or architectural significance, developers said.

According to William Pensek, deputy director of the Maryland Historical Trust, state and local initiatives currently being considered would help offset the loss of federal tax incentives and funding for historic preservation projects. This month, the Baltimore City Council will consider a bill offering a new property tax credit for historic properties that are substantially rehabilitated.

"We're very optimistic about this," Mr. Pensek said. "There are several positive things going on."

"It's alive and well," said Mr. Struever, whose company has participated in dozens of adaptive reuse projects and is now converting a 1901 trolley car barn in Highlandtown into 74 cooperative apartments for senior citizens. The $6.7 million project, with funding from a variety of sources, is scheduled to open by mid-1996.

In Pigtown, artist Rodney Carroll purchased an abandoned furniture store eight years ago and renovated it into his studio and residence. The entire first floor is a work and storage space for his large outdoor sculptures, the second and third floors are studios used by other artists, including his wife, Narda, and the fourth floor is their living quarters.

"It's not easy to find a building like this in Baltimore," Mr. Carroll said. "The advantages for me were it seemed cheaper to do it all under one roof. Also, I liked living very close to where I work."

Others have purchased units in converted buildings because they were looking for something out of the ordinary.

"This is a beautiful building," said Matthew Dubnansky, an accountant who bought a two-bedroom condominium in an old elementary school, perched high on a hill in historic Ellicott City. "Everything else I looked at was pretty cookie cutter."

They can help

Several organizations in the area are involved in the preservation and reuse of historic buildings. Among them:

* The Maryland Historical Trust, William Pensek, deputy director, 410-514-7604.

* Preservation Maryland, David Chase, director, 410-685-2886.

* The Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP), Kathleen Kotarba, director, 410-396-4866.

* Baltimore Heritage Inc., Vickie McCarthy, administrative assistant, 410-625- 2585.

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