A contest's vivid legacy

The Baltimore Sun

Nine years ago, a few muddy brown homes in North Baltimore threw off their dreary facades and something magical happened: They got some color.

After a century of muted colors and blah-blah browns, neighbors in Charles Village began scrambling across their roofs and porches wielding paintbrushes. In came macaroni-and-cheese yellows and tangerine oranges, deep blues and screaming greens - all part of a 1998 contest to encourage residents to brighten up the neighborhood.

Today, the contest is just a memory, but the painting hasn't stopped. The neighborhood boasts well over 100 multicolored rowhouses, and some residents have changed color schemes several times. The crazy colors and oddball designs have made some homes into icons for Baltimore advertisements. And they've helped attract new residents to Charles Village.

"It's taken on a life of its own," said Steven Rivelis, who organizes social action campaigns from his wildly painted St. Paul Street office. "It's the Tom Sawyer dynamic. You know, I start painting the fence, other people start to paint."

Charles Village, roughly bounded by 22nd Street, Howard Street, University Parkway and Guilford Avenue, has never been known as a high-crime area. But in the mid-1990s, The Sun reported that crime was creeping in, "For Sale" signs were popping up and many residents were having difficulty selling their homes. "Charles Village cries for help," declared one editorial.

Enter locals Steven Rivelis, Linda Brown Rivelis, Dawna Cobb and Lisa Simeone. While relaxing over wine in 1997, they plotted how to pump energy into their neighborhood. A few Charles Village mavericks had already painted their homes in two or three bold colors. What if they could get everyone to do it?

"If people were painting their homes, they would be the same sort of people to go to the park and fix the park," Steven Rivelis said. "And if you're fixing the park, you're then going to look at the school and realize the school needed volunteers, and you're really kind of saving a neighborhood."

The contest began in 1998 when the Annie E. Casey Foundation agreed to sponsor the event. The roughly three dozen participants drew inspiration from a row of multicolored Victorian houses in San Francisco dubbed the "Painted Ladies." Judges awarded three prizes: Best Porch Front Facade ($3,000), Best Flush Front Facade ($2,000) and Best Front Door ($500).

Some resisted. The landlord next to Carrie Rathmann objected to the "garish" shades of yellow she wanted to paint their shared porch railing, she wrote in her application for the first contest. "It was his preference that we paint a line down the center of each column and each shared spindle to clearly separate our property from his."

The two compromised on a more traditional green with rust trim. Rathmann's house in the 2700 block of North Calvert St. was eventually painted six colors.

The competition expanded, taking place three times a year, and the rules got fancier. There were prizes for whole blocks, for the best railings and for the most improved homes. Children's author Daniel Pinkwater - whose book The Big Orange Splot tells the tale of man stifled by the humdrum-colored houses in his neighborhood - signed on to judge via e-mail from upstate New York.

Neighbors sanded, stripped, painted and caulked together. Beverly Fink shimmied up her neighbor Val Kuciauskas' back porch to paint her own roof. Fink did Kuciauskas' too. Some neighbors coordinated colors. When they didn't, the side-by-side mismatched designs became another symbol of Charles Village's eclectic character.

Steven Rivelis began to notice that people moving in were painting their homes without even knowing there was a contest.

"I think if you lived in the county and you did something like that, the neighbors would run you out of town," said Nancy Charlow, Best Flush Front Facade 1998. "But here everybody loves it."

Residents of Charles Village have been called typically atypical, normally abnormal. They are graduate students and blue-collar workers, permanent residents and renters, families and older singles. It's a neighborhood that bred the Guerrilla Gardeners, a group of women who attack unattended garden plots and tree wells with a vengeance.

The neighborhood has gradually become a gold mine of surprises. One artist keeps a rusted typewriter in her front yard and a large sculpture made of blue bottles in the back. Charlow added a dramatic vine-like iron balustrade - a sort of decorative fence - to a window years ago.

Of course, not all of Baltimore's Painted Ladies are meticulously manicured. On many homes, paint is crumbly and moldings are rusted. But in the past 10 years, the neighborhood with all the "For Sale" signs has re-established itself as a Charm City icon.

Baltimore's Painted Ladies pop up in magazines, on the cover of city ADC maps and in LiveBaltimore ads plastered across Washington-area Metro stops.

"It was by far our favorite, largely because of aesthetic appeal," said Emily Wilson, who chose Charles Village a few years ago for the nearby Waverly farmers' market, a convenient shuttle route - and the allure of living in one of the neighborhood's most elaborate homes, a royal purple number adorned with a mosaic of mirrors, shells and glass.

Fink, a nurse in the neonatal intensive care unit at Johns Hopkins Hospital, moved to the neighborhood in 1982, when her house in the 3000 block of Guilford Ave. was an unassuming combination of washboard white and forest green.

Since then, her three-story rowhouse has had four makeovers - mixing gray, dark blue, mauve, teal, grape, grass green, red and yellow. Her neighbor Kuciauskas has given her home three new looks, each brighter and wilder than the last.

"You kind of get bored," Fink said. "Work is stressful; life can be stressful. When you're painting ... you can see something, a change, right there."

Today, her front porch is pomegranate pink, electric lime and two contrasting oranges. She sometimes goes to the farmers' market and finds photos of her candy-colored block taken from her own front porch. And a picture of her rowhouse is on Wikipedia - just search "Charles Village."

Charles Village wasn't always so aesthetically freewheeling.

Born as "Peabody Heights" in the 1870s, the neighborhood emerged as a planned community. At the turn of the century, well-to-do professionals were lured to elaborately designed three-story rowhouses dressed with picturesque bay windows, idyllic front porches and small front lawns - touted as "the city house with the suburban advantages," according to Charles Belfoure, co-author of The Baltimore Rowhouse.

The details - stained glass above front doors, elaborate roof moldings called cornices, royal columns with ornate caps and bases - distinguished the rowhouses from standard working-class homes and made them worth up to $8,000.

Most were brown.

Grace Darin, a copy editor and sometimes-historian for The Evening Sun, anointed the neighborhood "Charles Village" in the 1960s when she began producing The Charles Villager, a community newsletter.

The neighborhood lacks the stringent covenants that exist in many other historic neighborhoods, part of the reason the Painted Ladies have thrived.

Color is just one way residents have tried to pack more punch into Charles Village and to show that the neighborhood is a safe, stable area. When the local branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library closed shortly before the 1998 contest, locals re-fashioned it into the Village Learning Place, offering after-school care, computer training and more.

"We figured the people were creative enough to go crazy with their house," said Leslie McElheny, who moved to Abell Avenue two years ago, pulled in by an array of color. "So we figured it couldn't be too bad."

Baltimore's Painted Ladies aren't the first vividly painted homes to help change a neighborhood's psyche.

"There are lots of ... towns in America that are being revived because of the Painted Ladies," said Elizabeth Pomada. The San Francisco-based literary agent has traveled the country to see Painted Ladies in such places as Charleston, S.C.; Cape May, N.J.; Brooklyn, N.Y.; and New Orleans. With husband Michael Larsen, she has published four books on the topic.

"We always think of the house as a she," said Pomada, "with the windows as the eyes, the mascara has now been polished, the designs are the jewelry, the paint is the makeup."

Though Charles Village's last painting competition was held in 2003, Cobb is trying to find the money to continue the tradition.

"It's not stodgy," Charlow said. "That's the thing I like about the neighborhood. It doesn't take itself too seriously - a lot of impromptu neighbors getting together, saying, 'Oh look, we were just having some wine, come on in.'"


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