One woman's castle in 'hot' Canton


Most real estate agents would agree that Canton is a "hot" area in which to buy a home. Prices for small, modest homes that a few years ago may have sold for as little as $30,000 or $40,000 have been selling for two and three times that amount as young professionals are eager to move to the hip waterfront neighborhood.

Connie Breeden, a personal chef with her own business - Just a Matter of Thyme - knew Canton was the place to live three years ago when she decided to move from her home near Patterson Park. "It was the perfect time to move," she said. "I got in right before it became really popular. Back then, it was still an up-and-coming neighborhood."

Breeden figured she certainly saved money by getting in before the buying crunch. She purchased her home for just under $50,000. How did she know that Canton would become so big?

"Being a native New Yorker who grew up on the waterfront in Long Island, I just had to wonder why wasn't this waterfront a hot area," she said. Canton wasn't like Fells Point or Federal Hill, she added. "This was the last place to be discovered, and I saw this as a more viable area."

With no real estate agent, but with a geographic parameter in mind, Breeden "literally started driving up and down every block looking for houses." Again, she says, she was thinking ahead when choosing which streets in Canton she was interested in.

She wanted to be close to the main square, which she envisioned growing with more shops, bars and restaurants. She didn't want to be so close that parking would become an issue, but she didn't want to be too far away, either.

"The thing with neighborhoods that become hot areas is that the boundaries start to expand outward," she said, noting that she has heard real estate agents referring to certain areas as "East Canton" and "West Canton."

Seeing a for-sale sign in a window in a home that piqued her interest, Breeden called the real estate agent and made arrangements to see the home.

"It had been vacant for five years," she said, "and it needed work."

The home had all the typical elements of an old house that had been slightly neglected over the years and remodeled haphazardly: old dusty shag carpeting, rose and turquoise plastic tiles covering all four walls in the bathroom, layers and layers of wallpaper, Formica walls in the kitchen and linoleum placed on top of hardwood floors. Oh, she also found the previous owner's false teeth under the sink.

Still, Breeden was not fazed by the condition of the house.

"I visualize very well," she said. "I went to school for interior design and knew what I could do. In fact, I wound up doing more than what I thought I could actually do with the place." There were some minor remodeling disasters along the way, she admitted, but nothing tragic. The walls came tumbling down when the wallpaper was stripped off. When the dropped ceiling in the bedroom was removed, there was no second ceiling above it, just the eaves.

But the thing that shocked her the most was the large hole in the top of her closet that led directly into her next-door neighbor's home. "I got that bricked up that day," she said.

Also, she later found out that there was just enough water pressure to pass the home inspection - one toilet flush and one brief turning of the tap and, then, no more water.

Breeden had yet to sell her Patterson Park home and was paying two mortgages. A visit from a plumber was going to be expensive so the job had to be put on hold briefly.

"I went to the other house for showers and used the Safeway on a regular basis," she said, jokingly adding that the manager came to know her so well that he had fresh towels waiting for her every morning.

You would think that a personal chef would command a large, state-of-the-art kitchen with commercial-grade appliances. How could she ever manage in a kitchen not much larger than her bathroom?

Actually, the size of the kitchen wasn't so much of an issue. As a personal chef, Breeden does all of her work at the homes of her clients, either cooking for dinner parties or preparing two weeks of custom-ordered meals. Her home kitchen was solely for her own use.

"All I needed was an oven that worked and plenty of cabinet space," she said.

The oven didn't work when she moved in, so she had to buy a new one and ordered new cabinets to accommodate all of her pots and pans, dishes and knives. "And I had to have a cabinet for all of my vases," she said. In fact, she realized that she had so many cooking-related supplies that something had to go. "It had to be the dishwasher," she said.

Her Patterson Park home, which had two kitchens with lots of storage, had a dishwasher. It was a hard decision to make, but it was a choice of either getting rid of some things or starting to wash things by hand.

Breeden did much of the remodeling work with the aid of family and friends, particularly her father, John Sommer. "She made me do it," he joked during a week-long visit to his daughter's home.

Breeden had asked her father to help her put in a tin ceiling in her kitchen and do other smaller projects. "He had just retired when I bought the house, so I told him he needed a project," she said. The bulk of the work was done in just under seven months. "The worst part was putting up all new sheet rock," Sommer said. When the walls were back in place, Breeden papered nearly every room of the house in rich greens, tans and reds and decorated the walls with personal photos and paintings done by her 100-year-old grandfather, who still goes to art class every Friday.

With the inside of the home almost complete, Breeden is focusing on her back yard, which once was just a concrete slab with cinder-block walls. She has laid a brick patio and had the cinder-block dividers covered in stucco.

Needing a little green space, she added several large, tiered box gardens.

A fountain and outdoor cooking area are in the works. As a member and treasurer of the Canton Garden Association, she plans to show her back yard and garden in September for the Canton House and Garden Tour.

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