Victorian charm of Union Square
History: Living in the West Baltimore neighborhood of H.L. Mencken offers challenges, satisfaction and war stories for the close-knit residents.
By Adele Evans, SPECIAL TO THE SUN
True, Rockville was quieter and "leafier," but during the two years Richard Pelletier and his wife, Linda Massey, lived there, it was hard to get two words out of any neighbors.
"It was cold; nobody talked to us," Pelletier said. "My wife was scanning the Web for affordable areas between D.C. and Baltimore. We landed here one day. When we got out of our car, a woman sort of kidnapped us and gave us the pitch."
That woman turned out to be longtime resident Karen Fretz, president of the Union Square Association. Today, she's still at it, always trying to recruit new residents to the West Baltimore neighborhood that has its charms as well as its typical urban challenges.
A year and a half ago, Pelletier and Massey bought a house on Hollins Street that he said was "a wreck and 40 years out of date." Even so, it was 2,500 square feet for $54,000, which left a lot of money for restoration. They spent about $90,000 on renovations.
Now, they're surrounded by history and Victorian atmosphere. And they will open their home to visitors next week along with 17 of their neighbors as Union Square celebrates its annual Christmas Cookie Tour on Dec. 8.
The 17-year-old event is the one fund-raiser for the area, which is just west of the B&O Roundhouse. It's a celebration of how far it has come. Coordinators expect 600 to 700 visitors to tour and sample cookies as they go. Proceeds will go for Union Square Park and street improvements, and to select charities.
Countless tour veterans and residents say they never knew Union Square existed until they stumbled on it. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard acts as a natural barrier - and West Baltimore's reputation doesn't exactly attract tourists.
"Everyone's scared to come this far," said tour chairman and resident Francis Rahl. "Newcomers have to drive through iffy routes to get here, but many decided to buy. They had a kind of urban sensibility."
Rahl and his wife, Debra, are two prime examples. They moved from Towson 23 years ago and never left.
"We went to Federal Hill first, which was an obvious place for suburban people who didn't know the town," he said. "There was a lot of hype. But the homes were small for our taste and very expensive."
Eventually, a real estate agent suggested Union Square, where they purchased a $60,000 home on Stricker Street and spent $32,000 renovating it. Today, they wouldn't live anywhere else.
"We were from Towson," Rahl said. "It took four hours to mow the lawn. I wanted not to have any more Saturdays on the lawn mower. We have zero grass, but a big front yard."
Mixture of residents
Residents are a mixture of old and young, couples with and without children.
"Everyone here is different," Fretz said. "We like that."
Fretz said her 11-year-old daughter, Katherine, has done well growing up in the neighborhood.
"My daughter is keenly aware of the reality of life," Fretz said. "She sees clearly, and she has the luxury of seeing other cultures, too. She'd be more isolated in the suburbs."
A Howard County native, Fretz found the area through a job. When she was a teen-ager, she worked in a pharmacy near the square. It didn't take long before she fell in love with the "richness of the city."
Others throughout the years have had the similar feelings.
Quintessential newspaperman/author H.L. Mencken lived in a rowhouse across from the park, from 1883 to 1956. That house is empty and is owned by the city.
Several motion pictures, most recently Washington Square, a 1997 movie directed by Agnieszka Holland, have been filmed in Union Square. Director Barry Levinson's 1990 film Avalon was partially filmed at nearby Hollins Market.
Viva House, a longtime charitable organization that offers services such as meals to the poor, is at 26 S. Mount St. in Union Square.
Many residents said they were attracted to Union Square because they could "get the most bricks for the buck," compared with other major cities - or even other parts of Baltimore.
The average sales price of a home in Union Square was $57,465 (usually a fixer-upper) last year, according to the Live Baltimore Center. Restored homes can run up to $275,000.
"I couldn't afford the entry costs to other places in town like Guilford," said Bill Adler, who with his wife, Deborah, recently purchased the historic, 8,000-square-foot Turnbull Mansion on the south side of the park at Lombard and Stricker streets.
Dinner for 48
"We had dinner for 48 people there," he said.
They sat down in the grand room at three large tables and chairs along the walls.
The brick mansion was built more than 150 years ago by the Turnbulls, a longtime Maryland merchant family. Like countless other city homes, it passed through various owners and fell into disrepair as wealth shifted to the suburbs. Finally, it became city property.
When the Adlers bought it two years ago, it was in "deplorable" shape. They paid the city less than $150,000 - but had to put on a new roof, plug countless holes and install new windows. Even so, the home has solid hardwood floors (from old, tightly-ringed trees) throughout, antique pine, thick plaster walls for better durability and soundproofing, ornate moldings, stately windows and cornice ceilings.
The Adlers won't finish overnight; they plan a slow, steady restoration pace. By the end of next year, they hope everything will be in order.
The first floor will become headquarters for SoWeBo Arts Inc., a nonprofit organization that puts on the annual Sowebohemian Arts Festival near Hollins Market. The main floor will house art shows and act as a gathering place for local artists. The couple will live on the second floor.
Betsy Nix and her husband, Andy Imparato, also feel Union Square is the best-kept secret in town. "We looked at other townhomes and most of them here have back yards," said Nix, who moved to the area two years ago.
Nix and Imparato also were approached by Fretz, who showed them her home on Hollins Street. After living in large cities from coast to coast, they have decided that Union Square will remain their home. They live on Stricker Street.
"We're here for life," Nix said. "It's a great mix of romance and practicality. And you can afford the houses. They'd be completely out of range in San Francisco or Boston."
"Our house has good energy," Pelletier said. "Yes, we've put money into it but, even in the end, it's 2,500 square feet for a lot less than most cities."
For many residents, their homes are a source of pride - artworks in progress. The Rahls' home is no exception.
"Everything you see, we did," Francis Rahl said. That includes ripping out ultramodern design features the former owner had, reinstalling a ceiling in the dining room, staining walls and adding numerous antiques found in local shops. They also studied wallpapers and colors of the era, toured mansions, built cabinets in the dining room and painted faux seams on the wooden chair railing to make it look more antique.
Residents say that although they all have nearly the same interior floor plan, 12-foot ceilings and Italianate exteriors - none of the homes are truly alike.
Styling ranges from contemporary to antique - and everything between.
Pelletier and Massey removed wallpaper from the ceilings, redid the kitchens and bathroom, and installed new windows in their 1896-vintage home.
Now, with a contemporary-styled home, Pelletier can sit in his second-floor office and look out over the late autumn colors. A free-lance writer, Pelletier was so inspired by the area that he's completing a book on Union Square's history and his experiences there.
The Fretz family decided on an English flair for their interior, though it "tends to have a lot going on." She used bright colors and a "hodgepodge" of country and Colonial furniture.
"Some people are more purist; others are more 21st-century friendly while keeping with the basic look," Fretz said.
Residents seem to face a kind of reverse competition: Whose home was in the worst original shape?
It seems almost everyone has a war story, each more terrible than the last, about how horrible their home was "at the start" and how much work they had to do to get the house in shape.
"Our home was ... just horrendous," Fretz said. "We saw its potential - a meaty structure with character. But we had to undo years of bad work and restore it."
Victorian charm aside, Union Square is part of West Baltimore. That means that issues of crime, public school quality and vagrancy remain challenges.
Even so, residents don't seem intimidated - and some say the crime reputation is overblown.
"We're not worried. We're aware of the street and we've always lived in cities," Nix said. "It's funny. ... People in different areas of town always say that [the other part of town] is dangerous."
"It's an intense place," Pelletier said. "There are times that it's like any other city neighborhood and times when it's not. You hear the sirens and the helicopters flying overhead."
"You have to be aware that you're moving into the city; it's not the suburbs," Pelletier added, noting the "wild swings" in streets around Union Square.
More residents seem concerned about absentee landlords they say let properties slip into decay.
"Street crime here is overestimated, and it's usually bad on bad," Fretz said. "Investors ... put 25 people in a house to pay the mortgage. It lowers our property value, while we escalate the value of theirs."
Union Square Christmas Cookie Tour
When: Sunday, Dec. 8.
Time:Noon to 5 p.m.
Tickets:$12. Available at the Neighborhood Design Center in the 1400 block of Hollins Street. You'll get a tour booklet.
Directions:Take Lombard Street west to Stricker Street. Turn right and park anywhere around the park, or on side streets.
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Victorian charm of Union Square - Baltimore Sun