Renovating in Otterbein

By Mary Zajac

When Jeff Lauren and Susan Leviton won the lottery for their house at the corner of Lee and Hanover Streets in Otterbein in 1975, there was no Harborplace, no hotels, no stadiums. The only thing standing between their home and the harbor were train tracks, a view they would take advantage of when the Tall Ships sailed into Baltimore a year later. A chain link fence surrounded the neighborhood. The scent of spices from McCormick hung in air. Their house, a multi-story, former penny candy store, shoe repair shop, and at one time, Jeff Lauren surmises, a brothel, built some time before 1850, boasted nine fireplaces and no panes of glass in the vacant gaps where windows once were.

“My grandmother had worked on Hanover Street in a sewing factory,” explains Leviton, who grew up in Park Heights and is able to walk to her job as Professor of Law at nearby University of Maryland’s Francis King Carey School of Law. “When she heard we paid $1 for our house, she said, ‘You paid 50 cents too much.’” Leviton says her grandmother spent her life trying to get out of that neighborhood; in 1975, Leviton and her boyfriend (now husband) were moving back in.

Lauren took a six month leave of absence from his job in the state public defender’s office to begin demolition of the interior of the house, attacking walls with a hammer and shoveling out debris. It would be several more years of renovation that included using brick from a back wall to pave the kitchen floor, building bridge-like walkways that connected the front and back of the house and transforming the storefront entry into a broad window that spans the face of the house, before the couple could move in.

“You really had to visualize,” reflects Leviton. “It was an exciting way of getting a house.”

Otterbein was second location of Baltimore’s homesteading project, where 800 people submitted bids for 104 houses.  The winners received their houses for the sum of a $1 as well as $30,000 worth of financing from the city and the promise of infrastructure, paved roads, and future development. Over 30 years later fewer than 10 original owners remain, estimates Lauren.

Phil Dubey, owner of Dubey’s Art & Antiques on Howard Street’s Antiques Row, is one of them. Along with being an original Dollar House owner, Dubey also has the distinction of being the first homesteader to be awarded a house at the drawing which took place in the Old Otterbein Church Hall. Dubey describes an overflow crowd with Mayor William Donald Schaefer in attendance. “When my name was drawn, Schaefer asked me, ‘Where do you live?’ remembers Dubey. “I said, ‘Lutherville,” and everyone exploded into applause at the idea of northern folks moving back into the city.”

Later that evening, recalls Dubey, a limo pulled up outside the church. Inside was Schaefer on his way home. The mayor recognized Dubey, rolled down the window and said to him, “Have at it, man.”

“It just shows you what a super guy Schaefer was,” says Dubey.

Dubey’s renovation of his circa 1795 South Sharp Street house began with replacing a caved in roof and putting up copious amounts of drywall in the kitchen and bedroom to make them habitable while other work took place. Eventually, he rebuilt the back section of the house to suggest a carriage house, replaced damaged floors with original style wood and salvaged the home’s original wainscoting and six-inch wide crown moldings. “I’d work a little and do something [to the house]; then I’d work a little more and get something else done,” says Dubey. The house “wasn’t worth a dollar,” he adds wryly. “On the other hand it was every bit worth a dollar.”

Likewise, architect David Shull describes the Hanover Street house he was awarded as a “total disaster.” “It had no detail work,” says Shull. “It had floor joists and some floors, but not all floors…[but] I liked the location and I sort of liked the house.” At 22 feet wide with 4,500 square feet, it was a large property. “I was young and had no money and it sounded like a good deal,” says Shull of his decision to enter the lottery.

For most homesteaders, renovating posed its fair share of challenges.  Exterior restoration needed to adhere to a strict set of guidelines established specifically for the Otterbein Homestead Area. Interior restoration could be stymied by a number of factors from city red tape to a lack of available craftspeople to do the work. “It was tough finding contractors,” recalls Shull. “For good contractors, this was a no man’s land.”

The biggest issue—bigger than the dead rodents found in the walls or tearing down the many walls that divided the space into a warren of small rooms—says Shull, was the feeling of “living in a war zone.”

“It was such an abandoned neighborhood,” recalls Shull. There was nothing but shells of houses and no street lighting. There was also crime, so the city encased the neighborhood with a barbed wire fence to which each homesteader was given a key to enter and exit. For the first six months, the streets were torn up by construction that the neighborhood was a sea of mud.

Still, those who’ve stayed in Otterbein say the benefits outweighed the initial costs.  Phil Dubey cites the diversity of the original community.  Susan Leviton recalls neighborhood picnics, evening cocktails on the front steps and a “spirit of adventure” among homesteaders. David Shull relishes the memory of “living downtown and watching the neighborhood grow up around you.” Over thirty years on, Otterbein homesteaders enjoy amenities of city life—proximity to the harbor, to Federal Hill and its restaurants, to the stadiums—not available to most Baltimore neighborhoods. Plus, they have had the opportunity to create a custom home from the ground up.

“The nicest thing about the program is that you got something brand new and something very old,” says Leviton who was married to Lauren in their dollar house in 1979. “My children say, ‘This house is not allowed to be sold because this house is special.’”

 

Mary K. Zajac is a Baltimore-based writer, editor, historian and consultant whose work has appeared in publications including the New York TimeSaveurUrbanite, and the City Paper. She is the Food Editor for Style where her column, “Past Perfect,” a tribute to Baltimore buildings that no longer exist ran from 2009-2012. She also co-hosts “Word on Wine” with Jonathan Palevskyon 91.5 FM. Zajac holds a bachelor’s degree from Loyola College (now University) of Maryland, an M.A. from West Virginia University, and a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Chicago.