Pauline and Stelios Spiliadis offer a new twist for those who go against the tide of urban flight and stake their claim in rowhouse Baltimore.
They are not young newcomers rediscovering the joys of urban living. They didn't spend weekends running to hardware stores, taking on projects that led to even bigger ones until they were living in a construction site, their tools in the bedroom, the walls ripped out.
No, their son, Dimitris, did that. They just got sucked into the back draft of their son's adventure and eventually abandoned their Mount Washington home and their good jobs to throw themselves fully into an urban renovator's adventure. Right when their lives should have been hitting a plateau of stability, they gambled as if they were two kids who had nothing but a big future waiting for them.
In the past three years, Stelios, 60, and Pauline Spiliadis, 56, helped their son resurrect a nearby Fells Point alley house. Then they went a block away to convert an abandoned general store into a critically acclaimed restaurant -- The Black Olive -- and now the creme de la creme, they've restored their own Fells Point home.
Two homes and a restaurant.
It all started four years ago, when Dimitris was looking for an
Don't rent, said his parents. Buy a fixer-upper for cheap, invest some sweat equity, and watch the value go up.
For $20,000, Dimitris found a nightmare on Bethel Street, an alley street that attracts interior decorators who like big challenges in small spaces. At the time he was a 24-year-old teacher at the Children's Guild.
"That was the only house I could afford, in a neighborhood in which I could feel comfortable," Dimitris said.
Dimitris had difficulty qualifying for a conventional mortgage; that's when he turned to Kopernik Federal Savings Association on Eastern Avenue. A local bank, Kopernik has been specializing in creating homeownership in the Fells Point/Highlandtown area for 74 years.
L Jeffrey Collier, the bank's vice president, likes rehabbers.
For him, renovating demonstrates a renewed faith in urban living.
"When I see that, it makes you feel pretty good about your job," he said.
As it would turn out, Kopernik would back each of the Spiliadis projects.
For Dimitris, the alley house was the perfect project -- not overwhelming even though the conversion from a forgotten relic to a cozy bachelor's pad would require immense effort.
"You couldn't see one brick," he said. "You couldn't see any wood. Everything was laminated or covered with 10 layers of wallpaper representing all periods of Baltimore wallpaper."
Experience in short supply
While Dimitris had great expectations, he had no idea what he was doing. His father, who tried to lend a hand, had about the same amount of experience -- none.
It was time to bring in a contractor to help out.
"I would do all the physical labor and he would do all the skilled work," Dimitris said.
Together, they took crow bar and chisel to the walls, the plaster, the floorboards, ripping out everything, wading through clouds of dust, reassuring one another that somehow they were going to rebuild this thing.
"For me, though, doing that rehab with Dimitris as a father was one of the most gratifying experiences," Stelios said. "The bonding that was created in the process, oh, God."
Stelios remembers working alone one day at the house while his son went to a baseball game.
"I stayed behind still working and all of a sudden I take off some of the plaster and behind it I discover a fireplace. Oh, man, I couldn't wait until Dimitris came home."
Today, Dimitris' house has a fireplace in every room. With its exposed ceiling, bricks and tiny corkscrew stairs, the house has a rustic tree fort feel. The kind of place where a bicycle hanging from the rafters is expected.
A closer look
While spending the months doing rehab, the Spiliadises began to see Fells Point as insiders.
They met neighbors, shopped at the markets on Broadway and -- probably most importantly -- they started seeing all the other renovation projects in progress. They saw first-hand that these "weekend contractors" were honing their skills through trial and error.
"I've been to Fells Point as an outsider, but experiencing Fells Point as an insider was a real thrill," Stelios said.
In 1996, the Spiliadises began a part-time catering business.
At the time, Pauline Spiliadis was a manager at the Enoch Pratt Free Library and Stelios was a state administrator with the Department of Human Resources. But the favorable response to their catering encouraged them to go further and open up a restaurant with Dimitris.
First they had targeted the Mount Vernon area, but then they came across an empty grocery store on Bond Street in Fells Point. As they peered through the old windows they instantly envisioned a quaint Mediterranean restaurant. Getting the building to actually adhere to their vision would be quite a trick.
The Spiliadises went back to Kopernik for financing. Collier said he saw what they had done with Dimitris' house, taking a broken-down alley house and turning it into a $170,000 gem. Not only did they have additional collateral, but they had a track record.
They financed $90,000 to buy the store front with an unusable carriage house. Kopernik also arranged an additional $30,000 loan based on the future appraisal of the building. The money was kept in escrow to pay the contractors as work was completed.
The family also obtained a $160,000 Community Revitalization loan from the state Housing and Community Development that paid for construction, equipment and capital costs.
Judging from the photos of the original building, it's hard to believe that the couple could see a quaint restaurant heavy with atmosphere in a building that looked as if it could collapse into a cloud of dust.
'Made me nervous'
They hired Demos Anastasiadis as the architect and contractor. But, as the work unfolded, Stelios said, Anastasiadis would run into structural roadblocks forcing him to retrofit the architectural plans to the idiosyncrasies of old historic building.
For instance, where the architect had envisioned placing the kitchen behind a wall, Stelios said the contractor suggested exposing the cooking area. The result was an archway and an open kitchen that resembles a market.
At one point Stelios doubted himself and had an overwhelming sense of doom -- that this time, they've gone too far.
"It was a shell," Stelios said. "It made me nervous, made the bank nervous, but I know we had the plan to complete it."
He recalled seeing the bankers from Kopernik Federal Savings Association surveying the project and looking worried.
Piece of junk
"When we went down, I was looking at a shell of an old beat up piece of junk and the roof was leaking," said Collier. "When you look at it and see his plans you were like: 'Mmmm yeah mmmm My God, what did we get ourselves into.' "
A few months later, Collier was able to see that the investment was going to succeed.
"Every day we would be in there and discuss should we put a window there; should we make this into an archway; how can we rescue this floor; can we use the beams somewhere else," Pauline said.
The Spiliadises recycled everything possible from the general store sign, now the easel placed out on the sidewalk, to the beams that now run the length of the open kitchen. Even the gapped-jointed floorboards were salvaged and are now essential the restaurant's van Gogh cottage look.
"We added some features that would transform a general store into a Mediterranean restaurant once you're inside," he said.
In the end, the Spiliadises owned a building with enough room to launch their restaurant, which open in March 1997 and two upstairs apartments that they could rent to help pay the mortgage.
Their success with their son's rowhouse and the restaurant gave them the fearlessness to think big when they noticed that one of Fells Points most prominent structures was also a long established eyesore. But their ambitious vision failed to spot the potential disaster that awaited anyone who wanted to save the historic home.
One more time
The Spiliadises noticed the house when they were presented a petition from neighbors concerned that they were applying for a liquor license.
On a list of surrounding properties that may be affected by the restaurant, they spied a vacant house on Shakespeare Street less than a half block away.
This piece of property that came with the Fells family street-side gravestone, marking the graveyard that has long since vanished, was in worse shape than the restaurant. The building was so unstable that they had to get insurance before being allowed to inspect the interior. Still, in the wreckage they saw the basis to what would become their new life.
"I think having done Dimitris' house helped us visualize something beautiful in this historic building," Pauline said.
They bought the building in 1997 at a city auction for $37,000 and for the next year, a stream of construction crews forged a compromise between historic renovation and modern living.
The wobbling front wall had to be replaced brick by brick. Like the restaurant, the Spiliadises were looking to blend the Fells Point tradition with Mediterranean influences. The three-story house has five balconies, five bathrooms and three bedrooms. Most of the floors are covered with ceramic tile for a more European flavor.
Yet the crooked rooms with walls that veered off at slight angles were preserved -- an architectural nod to the original builders.
The Spiliadises, also hired Robert L. Eney, one of the foremost experts of Fells Point, to research the home. It's Eney's theory that the front part of the house could have been part of the estate of William Fell, who settled the area in 1731. The house was first mentioned in a sale of some of Fell's properties in 1792, according to Eney.
Eney said the building, which had been enlarged over the years, was originally a 20-by-20-foot Quaker-style house with the tell-tale small pent roof on the front and back. He said the house was probably built before 1746 when William Fell died.
"It's a house from his era," he said. "It's not likely that someone 20 years later would build that kind of house."
Standing in the basement, now a converted office space, Spiliadis put his hand on the original exposed brick wall which has been allowed to run up through a loft design to the first floor ceiling. He likes to think of the wall as a monument to those who built it.
"In order to be true preservationists we would have to get an outhouse," he laughs.
"What we have done, I hope, is to keep the traditional framework and try to transcend it into the contemporary style."
The one modern facet that they heartily embraced was light to brighten what could have been a long tunnel of a row home. They used a skylight to open a stairway and usher in sunlight. The balconies that stand off two sides of the house allows sunlight to come into their rooms.
And, in keeping with current renovating trends, they crowned the home with a roof deck complete with a shower. In fact, they have rigged one of their bathrooms with a stand-up shower and a sunken tub. Now they're planning to convert their courtyard into a Mediterranean garden with a grape arbor and some fruit trees.
Their brand of living
Four years after taking a stab at rehabbing a home in Bethel street, the Spiliadises haven't just settled for adapting to Fells Point, but have spun their own blend of Euro-American living.
"It reminded me so much of Europe," said Spiliadis, whose Greek accent may have made a comeback in recent years.
"The whole kind of notion that people could live in the same place that they worked, that they can work at the same place they can have their entertainment everything could be taken care of within these couple of blocks that mixed use appealed to me."
Pub Date: 12/27/98