No better place for a builder to be Home: Union Square's annual house tour features a work in constant progress the Senkus home on South Stricker Street.


Greg Senkus, who renovates old houses for a living, was halfway through his own home project when his life took a little turn.

The house on South Stricker Street, which will be one of about 20 on Union Square's annual house tour this year, had long been in need of a rescue. It had been vacant for 10 years, and the back part of the roof had collapsed, taking everything under it into the basement. But Senkus had grown up in the neighborhood and still had friends there. "I was looking for a house, and this one was real cheap," hesaid.

Although he'd never taken on such a large project by himself, completing his bedroom, bath and kitchen -- the minimum he needed to move in -- took him only about three months. He was counting on spending a more leisurely time getting every thing else finished.

But fate intervened; he met Kim Box, and the two fell in love and got married.

"And I wanted French doors," said Box.

With a builder in the house -- no problem.

House-tour visitors will be able to see the result; warm, wooden double French doors open to the back porch at the end of the dining area. The back porch is also double, with a balcony overlooking the cozy back yard.

The 11th annual Christmas Cookie tour, sponsored by the Union Square Community, raises money for improvements in the neighborhood, which is just west of downtown and once was home to noted journalist H. L. Mencken. Homeowners on the tour will offer visitors cookies they have made.

This is the second time this house has been on the tour, Senkus said. The first time, several years ago, when the house was being shown as a "work-in-progress," a woman who visited told him she had been born in the house. She was amazed at the changes.

Among changes Senkus made-- to accommodate the French doors -- was moving the kitchen to the middle of the first floor and turning the back part of the space into a cozy, wainscoted dining room.

The new dining area features honey-maple board-and-bead wainscoting and silver-gray walls. Box, who's a vice president at First National Bank, stenciled a stylized pattern of grapes, stems and leaves around the top of the walls. The colors in the stencil coordinate with the gray and maroon tile in the kitchen area. The porches follow the color scheme; they're painted gray, with maroon railings.

Was Box satisfied? Well, not quite.

She wanted doors on the second floor bedroom (instead of an open landing), clothes closets, a linen closet and the third floor converted to office/study space.

Now, with the house again on the cookie tour, Senkus and Box are finishing up a myriad of projects that will get their dwelling into festive shipshape.

And maybe, just maybe, the house will be done.

Senkus said he didn't go into the project, when he bought the house in 1985, with a complete renovation plan in his head. But he saw lots of possibilities in the 15 1/2 -foot wide rowhouse, despite its decrepit condition.

"I see possibilities in probably every house," he said. "All the city houses have some potential."

He likes Baltimore's older houses for their general layout and remaining architectural detail, though he's not committed to a historical approach. He said he encourages his clients to hire an architect to help them envision what they want from a project, a process that ensures he and his customers will concur about the results.

In his own house, for instance, he did some nontraditional things, such as removing the standard wall that divided a narrow hallway from the front room. And the living room's long wall, adjacent to the door, has been cleaned of its plaster to reveal soft, rose-colored brick.

"We cleaned that by hand," Box said. "Somebody told us later there's a tool you can use [to remove the plaster], but we did it all with chisels." (Senkus said he knew about the tool, but also knew it creates huge amounts of dust that he didn't want scattered around the house.)

One clever bit of necessity-driven design -- common in old-house renovation projects -- is in the master bedroom, where a drywall enclosure houses the new heating duct to the third floor. The fireplace flue, a few feet away, was also enclosed in drywall -- and Senkus built shelves between the two.

For the cookie tour, the Senkuses plan to decorate the front room mantel with an assortment of candlesticks and candles and to place the Christmas tree between the two front windows. Box plans to put wide, colorful ribbons on the curtains, and maybe wrap a greenery garland around the staircase banister. The long farmhouse table in the dining area will be decorated, and that is where the cookies will be.

What will Senkus and Box be serving? Lemon pecan tarts, Senkus said, laughing. "Because each batch makes a lot -- we have to make 500 of 'em or so."

Union Square house tour, with cookies

This year's tour is the 11th annual one for the Union Square neighborhood. It takes place from noon to 5 p.m. next Sunday. About 20 of the area's Victorian-era homes will be open, and each owner will be offering a different kind of cookie to visitors.

In addition, the H. L. Mencken Museum, in the renowned journalist's home on the square, will be open, and there will be an "Urban Christmas Store" with ornaments and crafts.

On the day of the tour, tickets are $10, including museum admission, and may be bought at the Steuart Hill Elementary School, at the intersection of 1600 W. Lombard St. and 30 Gilmor St. For more information, or to buy tickets in advance, call (410) 233-3168 or (410) 945-1497.

Pub Date: 12/01/96

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