Some people go looking for their dream home, and find it. Some make their dream home a reality by building it themselves. Then there are Rick Noble and Charles Rollins, who did both.
In 1977, Noble and Rollins bought a six-unit apartment building in the 2700 block of St. Paul Street. Their research told them that the Edwardian-era rowhouse, which they date to 1897, started life as a single-family home. They've spent the past 23 years restoring the house to as close to its original state as possible - while living in the house the entire time.
"There's a real satisfaction in standing back and saying, 'We did it,'" said Noble. "If we hadn't, this house would still be in six apartments today,"
For Noble and Rollins, who had previously renovated two other Baltimore houses, the work quickly became both a labor of love and a cause. They hope that seeing the results of their home's restoration will lead other homebuyers to consider renovating old Baltimore apartment buildings.
"If we could save this house, there isn't an apartment house in this block that couldn't undergo the same renovation," Noble said.
They were attracted to the house because of the staircase in the front hallway, which, although it had been covered in linoleum, was in its original condition beneath.
According to Rollins, the house had been "neglected, but not abused," The wooden floors were solid. The interior window shutters had been nailed into their frames during an early renovation, preserving them perfectly.
Noble and Rollins brought in contractors for tasks such as brickwork and rebuilding porches, but did the majority of the work themselves. Rollins worked primarily on plastering and interior painting, while Noble did carpentry work.
Work on the house proceeded slowly until both Noble and Rollins retired from their full-time jobs, a little less than a decade ago. They bought the house for less than $40,000, and purposely never calculated how much the restoration cost. As Noble explained, "I enjoy things more if I don't know how much they cost."
Rollins and Noble said living in the house throughout the renovation process helped them get a sense of what would work and what wouldn't. "We'd lived in the house when we made some of the big decisions," said Noble. "By living in the space, the house kind of told us what to do." They renovated their bedrooms first so they would have some space to retreat from the construction and plaster dust.
While they wanted to evoke the feeling of the 1897 version of the house, Noble and Rollins didn't hesitate to incorporate modern conveniences that suited their lifestyles. They do a lot of large-scale entertaining, and the house reflects this. It has two kitchens, one in the basement and one on the first floor, connected by a circular iron staircase. The basement kitchen is equipped with a four-burner restaurant stove and a Jenn-Air grill.
Including the basement, the 17-room house has just under 5,000 square feet of living space. One of Noble and Rollins' favorite aspects of the renovation is a cluster of interconnected rooms on the second floor - the library, office and music room.
The library is decorated in deep red and blue tones, with the north and south walls taken up by bookcases built by Noble. Stained-glass panels, illuminated from behind, flank the fireplace on the south wall. A bay window features shutters with their original wood finish.
The music room displays an 1864 George Prince Company melodeon - one of only two the company made with a double keyboard - and a street organ that folds up like a suitcase. In the corner is a knotty pine cabinet that came from the boardroom of Baltimore's old Hutzler Building, painted white with a blue interior to match the room's light blue decor.
Noble and Rollins love to recycle old materials, whether they come from within the house or from elsewhere in Baltimore. The basement bar illustrates this. Its base, or "skirt," is formed from the original pocketdoors from the house's front parlor, which decades ago were cut down into shelves. The bar's countertop is made from the old gymnasium floor of Margaret Brent Elementary.
A white marble mantel in the parlor and a Tennessee peanut marble mantel in the dining room come from demolished townhouses in downtown Baltimore. Noble and Rollins haunted the old City Salvage Depot as well as antique shops, auctions and flea markets to find furniture, stained glass and fixtures that would both suit their home and preserve a bit of Baltimore history.
Recently, Noble and Rollins wrote a "genealogy" of their home, chronicling its various owners and incarnations, gleaning facts from the Enoch Pratt Library, the Maryland Historical Society and city records.
"We wrote that piece in the hope that other people would develop the same interest in their own homes," said Rollins.
In the document, Noble and Rollins describe life in the renovated rowhouse thus: "What a privilege, and yes, what fun, to share all of this and more with all those named and unnamed, known and unknown residents of the past."