Back to homes again; Comeback: Former homes in downtown Baltimore are once again serving as residences.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

For decades, the four-story building in Mount Vernon was used as medical offices -- first by dentists, then psychiatrists.

But when it changed hands this year, the building wasn't sold to another doctors' group, or to any other commercial interest.

It was purchased by a husband and wife from Washington who are taking it back to its original use: a single-family residence.

Although Paul and Susan Warren say they considered many different places to live, they were struck by the grandeur and magnificent appointments of the 32-foot-wide house at 829 Park Avenue, built in the 1870s for the family that ran the Knabe piano factory in southern Baltimore.

Features include a glass-roofed music room with 10 fluted marble columns; a mahogany paneled library; stained glass skylights and windows; parquet and mosaic tile floors; and 11 fireplaces -- more than 6,000 square feet of living space in all.

Because it was solidly constructed and had been upgraded over the years to meet city codes for commercial use, the building was in remarkably good condition. And it sold for the cost of a relatively conventional house in the suburbs -- $264,000, according to the listing agent.

"We just keep pinching ourselves," said Paul Warren, 41, president of Vaxcom, a telecommunications firm in Northern Virginia. "How are you going to find a property like this that's not in the multimillions?"

The Warrens are at the forefront of a trend in which individuals are purchasing longtime commercial properties near downtown Baltimore and fixing them up for residential use.

In many cases, the commercial buildings started out as luxury homes for wealthy business owners. Today's urban pioneers are restoring the houses to their original condition.

In the process, they are dramatically changing the character of corridors such as Park Avenue and Mulberry Street by making them more residential in nature, as they used to be.

"The circle is coming complete," said Ethel S. Braun, president of E. G. Rock Realty, a specialist in Mount Vernon property and the firm that listed the Knabe residence. "People are moving back into the area. It's wonderful for the city."

Although the reclamation trend is still in its infancy, real estate brokers and agents report that over the past three years more than a dozen commercial properties that were built as single-family homes have been acquired for conversion back to residential use by people who are making them their primary dwellings.

Many are in Mount Vernon, Midtown-Belvedere, Cathedral Hill or other areas within easy walking distance of Baltimore's central business district. Constructed in the 1800s as mansions for Baltimore's elite, they contain the sort of appointments often missing from newer homes, including plaster walls, ornate moldings, built-in cabinets, gilt-edged mirrors and crystal chandeliers.

Over the years they have been subdivided to serve as offices for doctors, lawyers and others who found that the grandeur and dignity suited their practices. The first-level parlors, in particular, were perfect waiting rooms.

Now they are coming on the market again as physicians move to newer quarters in larger buildings nearby or out to the suburbs. The doctors say they want to be close to their patients and to install new computers and medical equipment, and the older buildings no longer provide the settings they need. In many cases, their patient base has moved out of the city, or hospitals with which they were affiliated have closed.

When these owners put their buildings on the market as commercial properties, they often languish for months because there isn't a strong demand for commercial space in older buildings outside the central business district.

But if the commercial market has cooled, these buildings are now receiving attention from buyers seeking large residences in the city. They value the qualities that made the homes so attractive to the families that first occupied them.

After looking in the suburbs and the city, the new owners see these old mansions as tremendous bargains, just waiting to be brought back to life. They figure that for the price of a newer suburban house -- $250,000 or so -- they are getting a quality of construction that is hard to find today.

Unlike the young urban renovators in the 1970s and 1980s, who did much of the work themselves as "sweat equity," these are highly sophisticated buyers who have a clear vision for urban living and the wherewithal to realize it.

The list of buyers includes doctors, corporate executives, investors who have done well in the stock market -- the 21st-century counterparts of the land barons and railroad tycoons who built these mansions a century ago.

They've lived in the suburbs and grown tired of the paper-thin walls, shoddy construction and long commutes. They want to be near the city's fine restaurants, theaters and other cultural amenities. They have surveyed the market and are willing to invest considerable sums to make these buildings livable by installing everything from new kitchens and bathrooms to the latest in home electronics and computer technology.

These buyers are hiring architects and interior designers to guide the restorations, and skilled craftsmen to carry out the work. Rather than moving in and tackling one room at a time, they are completing the bulk of the work before they take occupancy, so they don't have to live in the middle of a construction zone.

The renovations may cost tens of thousands of dollars, over and above the purchase price of the buildings. But by acting early in this trend, these reclamation experts are finding some remarkable buys.

Besides the Knabe residence, other recent examples include: 4 E. Madison St. -- A building that contained apartments and the offices of a graphic design firm was purchased for $275,000 by a Philadelphia couple that is converting it for residential use. Amenities include a side yard, off-street parking and a wide central staircase.

831 Park Ave. -- A dentist's office and carriage house sold for $137,500 to a couple restoring it for residential use. The couple is moving from the nearby Washington Apartments building in Mount Vernon.

9 E. Chase St. -- A doctors' office building sold for $170,000 in 1996 to a buyer who turned it into his residence.

11 W. Mulberry and 13 W. Mulberry St. -- Buildings that formerly housed the Fallon and Helen furniture and Interiors showrooms are being restored for residential use. No. 11 sold for $72,500 and No. 13 sold for $120,000.

108 E. Read St. -- a corner office building, the former headquarters of Park Biddle Management, sold this year for $220,000 to a buyer who plans to move there from the nearby Mount Vernon Mews condominiums. The same buyer purchased a carriage house at 901 W. Hargrove Alley for $100,000 and will continue to rent it out.

11 E. Eager St. -- a building that had housed physicians' offices and five apartments is under contract to a buyer who plans to make it an owner-occupied residence with three rental units. The sale is due to be final next month.

These conversions are good for Baltimore because the owner-occupants are making long-term investments in the city, said Henry McDonald, associate broker of Prudential Carruthers Realtors, which has been involved in several of the sales.

"They're not out to make a quick buck," McDonald said. "I think it puts a lot more stability into the area."

Dick Roszel, associate broker for O'Conor, Piper & Flynn ERA, calls the sales pattern "a very happy sign" for Baltimore.

"It says to the naysayers that there are people who believe in the city and think it's a good place to live and work and they're willing to invest in it. These are people who could live anywhere they want but choose to live in the city."

In many cases, agents say, the buyers are taking advantage of changing cycles in the real estate market, as doctors move their practices and free up older buildings that are still ideal for residential use.

The Knabe residence is "one of the crown jewels of Mount Vernon, and it was in pristine condition," said Braun, of Rock Realty. "It really doesn't lend itself to offices. It was built as a residence. Most of these houses were one-family. It's where all the merchants lived and built their houses. All the shipbuilders, too. They were magnificent homes."

McDonald, who is currently the listing agent for a former residence at 809 Cathedral St., says Mount Vernon's mansions were always among the finest in Baltimore.

"If you go into 809 Cathedral, you wouldn't believe the leaded glass windows and marble fireplaces inside," he said. "It is an example of the height of that kind of construction, and it is in superb condition."

For buyers seeking to live in the city today, he said, there has been a shortage of large residences because so many of them have been chopped up for office use.

As a result, he said, one of the best ways to find upscale housing near downtown is to reclaim an old mansion that has been subdivided. "There's an opportunity for those who can afford to do it."

Some residential agents say they believe certain commercial properties would sell more rapidly and for better prices if they were marketed specifically to this emerging breed of renovators.

They say some commercial buildings are not included on the multiple-listing service as potential residences and, as a result, many prospective buyers don't know to consider them.

Roszel, who represented the buyers in the sale of 4 E. Madison St., said he knew about the property only because he drove by it, saw the for-sale sign, and contacted the listing agent for information.

It turned out to be ideal for a couple with whom he was working, Glenn Whitman, the new chief of cardio-thoracic surgery at the University of Maryland Medical System, and his wife, Anna, who moved from Philadelphia. They settled in late October.

"I think many of these properties are being marketed to the wrong people," Roszel said. "People want to live in the city, but they're not hearing about them."

The Warrens are moving from Washington, where they restored a house near Logan Circle in the 1980s.

Paul Warren said he and his wife looked all over the region and considered Baltimore at the suggestion of a friend from Washington who was reclaiming a house on Chase Street.

He said they looked at a variety of properties and were impressed by the qualify of housing in the city and the friendly atmosphere.

"What brought us to Baltimore was Baltimore," he said. "We just loved it. It's another planet here."

While they looked at areas as diverse as Front Royal, Va., and Annapolis, Warren said, Mount Vernon "is the neighborhood where we found the best housing stock."

Although the Knabe building was in good condition when they bought it, the Warrens are removing partitions installed to break the building into doctors' offices, repairing plaster, installing a new kitchen and making other improvements. They even bought a Knabe piano for the first floor.

Besides the Knabe building's grandeur, pedigree and details, Paul Warren said, other factors appealed to him and his wife.

Since the building is in a historic district, he said, its restoration will qualify for tax credits for historic preservation. He also likes that it is part of a "special benefits district," that has its own cleaning crew and security force. He doesn't think the commute to his Northern Virginia office is any longer than if he lived in Columbia. And he likes the proximity to Baltimore's restaurants and other attractions.

On the whole, he said, he believes the investment to convert the Knabe mansion will pay off.

"I don't think that as a commercial property it holds the value that it will as a residence. You can't build anything as nice as this today."

Sun news researcher Eugene Balk contributed to this article.

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