Voices, footsteps and history echo in the Bolton Hill rowhouse at 1609 Park Ave.
Built in the 1880s when Baltimore was thriving thanks to the B&O; railroad, a strong manufacturing base and a fledging canning industry, the home has been a silent witness to scores of changes -- inside and out.
Baltimore and Bolton Hill faded along with the fortunes of the industrial Northeast, and the four-story rowhouse devolved from an upscale home in a fashionable neighborhood into a deteriorating hodgepodge of a building carved into three linoleum-floored apartments with a common entry hall and basement.
These days, the voices and footsteps in the house belong to Jeff and Norma Epstein, and the building has rebounded along with the neighborhood that surrounds it.
"It's a neat house; it had a lot of potential," said Jeff, 37, a contractor who did the majority of the remodeling work on his new home.
Escorting visitors through the newly restored 20-foot-wide rowhouse, the Epsteins eagerly interrupt one another.
"We had a ton of woodwork that had to be done," said Norma, 46, pointing at a glossy brown stair railing. "Everything was covered with green paint -- about 8 million layers."
"We took out three kitchens," he said, pointing at a large clothes closet that once held an apartment's stove and refrigerator.
"Being that it was apartments, there were closets everywhere," Norma said.
"We tore everything out and started over," Jeff said.
The Epsteins were living with Norma's two daughters -- Samara Witmar, now 19, and Shana Witmar, now 17 -- in an apartment building Jeff owned in Bolton Hill when they decided in 1991 to buy a single-family home for themselves.
"The space really wasn't working that well for us," Norma explained.
Both work from home -- Jeff as a contractor and Norma as a property manager. That combined with Samara and Shana sharing a bedroom -- sometimes less than harmoniously, Norma said -- added up to a new house. But not just any house would do.
The Epsteins enjoyed Bolton Hill and also wanted to stay because of the proximity to the six apartment buildings they own. To them, it is a quiet eddy of a neighborhood off bustling, traffic-congested Martin Luther King Boulevard.
They looked for years, rejecting some houses because they did not like renovations that had been done, and others because the space was not apportioned the way they wanted.
"Norma knew exactly what she was looking for," Jeff said.
She finally found it, late in 1995, on Park Avenue, just down the street from their apartment.
"Even though it was a wreck, I adored the floor plan," Norma said. "I had to really twist his arm."
"Yeah," Jeff said. "I knew how much work it was going to be."
As a licensed contractor who had done a lot of work on historic homes, Jeff knew he could do most of the renovations himself.
"He wanted to do it himself -- all by himself, every little thing," Norma said. "I finally said, 'Get real.' "
The Epsteins paid $85,000 for the house when they bought it, and estimate that it cost $192,000 to restore it. They count Jeff's time in that estimate. Actual materials cost between $80,000 and $100,000, they said.
"I really kind of don't want to know how much it was," Jeff said.
Norma helped out occasionally, knocking down walls and sanding floors, and Jeff did enlist the help of some subcontractors.
"We just kind of looked at it and said, 'Oh my God,' " said Dennis Chase, one of the men Jeff paid to help with the renovations.
A video shot before the Epsteins began restoring the house shows a neglected rowhouse subdivided into three tiny apartments.
"What you don't get from this [video] is the smell and the dust," Norma said.
It took almost two years, but the Epsteins converted that plaster-shedding wreck into an elegant rowhouse, gleaming with shiny, dark wood and smooth plaster walls. They moved into it in August.
They converted the basement into their kitchen but left part of it as a storage area. A steep back staircase and a less-treacherous front stairway lead up through a first floor that houses the Epsteins' formal living room, TV room, formal dining room, wet bar and a powder room.
The staircases ascend through the second floor which houses two bedrooms -- each occupied by one of Norma's daughters -- and a bathroom fitted out in pink marble.
The third floor is Norma and Jeff's "room" -- a bedroom, Norma's office and a bathroom that is the Epsteins' one concession to modern architecture.
"We tried to do everything back the way it was as much as possible," Jeff said.
To create their bathroom, though, the Epsteins combined two smaller rooms to create a marble and granite-tiled room complete with shower stall, glass brick windows, skylight, sink, toilet and a whirlpool tub that takes up half the room.
In the rest of the house, tongue-and-groove hardwood floors have supplanted buckling linoleum -- hence the echoing voices and footsteps.
Tall pocket doors with frosted glass windows separate the first-floor rooms, and a light shaft that had been almost completely boarded up when the building was apartments has been restored.
The home has seven fireplaces -- none operational -- six bedrooms, and a laundry room. It has new plumbing, wiring, heating and cooling systems.
"Functionally, it's a new house," Jeff said. "There was nothing we didn't touch -- it was a lot of work."
That work paid off for him when he was named 1997 Remodeler of the Year for residential historical renovations by the Maryland Improvement Contractors Association.
Jeff was not surprised to win, but Norma was. "I was shocked," she said. "There are so many really grand homes in Maryland. I didn't expect them to choose us."
Pub Date: 3/08/98