The 100-year-old floorboards groaned under my step as I closed the bedroom door and locked it — against whom exactly? — prepared to spend my first night in the house. Alone.
To buy a neglected Baltimore rowhouse is to imagine disaster.
Suppose the sooty boiler catches fire in the night. Or the lead paint sickens me. Or carbon monoxide leaks from the battered chimney, with its missing bricks like lost teeth.
Only the crisis came from afar. I spent nights and weekends washing grime from horsehair-plaster walls while the coronavirus took hold of the country. U.S. doctors confirmed their first case three weeks after I moved in. Soon Gov. Larry Hogan ordered us to stay home.
The bank had deemed mine uninhabitable.
Our lives are forever marked by the pandemic years. We are different people than before. We saw death, yet life went on. I restored a broken-down rowhouse in Baltimore.
The virus was closing schools and overwhelming hospitals. Here at least was something I could bring order to. Well, or try.
I had lived in studio apartments into my mid-30s. The houses listed online sold too fast, cost too much. So I’d walk the city neighborhoods to search the side streets and alleys. Just maybe I’d come upon a house for sale that had gone unnoticed.
The brick-and-frame, 1800s rowhouse sat vacant for two years near the banks of the Jones Falls. No one bid on the house at auction (Did they know something?). I bought it from the bank. The real estate agent, upon peering into the dank blackness of the basement, suggested, “You go first.”
A rusty, cast-iron sewer pipe dripped on the floor. Out back, wisteria vines choked the little house. The living room floor was a hazard of toe catchers: splintered boards and popped nail heads. I puzzled over the coarse hair — dogs? cats? wildebeest? — that clung to the walls. When I pressed a finger to the ceiling, there was a puff of dust and crumbling plaster. A haze filled the house; I sneezed.
Reality hit me now. This could go either way. I make this wreck a home or the house crushes me.
More so than other cities, Baltimore has a stockpile of cheap, old houses for repair. A city built for one million people has fewer than 600,000 residents today. While the U.S. stumbles for solutions to the affordable housing crisis, thousands of homes sit vacant in Baltimore, from crumbling stone mansions to shabby alley houses. The architect Klaus Philipsen once told me that Baltimore’s great, untapped resource is its historic buildings.
Back in the office, coworkers offered fixer-upper advice. It’s a shared experience around the city. And there are resources to help: a tool library in Station North and warehouses of used building supplies such as Second Chance and The Loading Dock. A man in Charles Village unloaded boxes of Old House Journal magazines on me. With the magazines and a college summer laboring as a construction grunt, I set to work.
The magazines instructed work high to low: ceiling, walls, floors. Patch, sand, paint. And to move methodically through a house, finishing one room at a time. There’s a simplicity to old houses, just brick, wood and plaster. One gets far simply learning to repoint brick, patch plaster and refinish floors.
The work was satisfying, quiet and slow. Outside, the virus sickened my friends. There was talk of furloughs at work. Patch, sand, paint. One room at a time. This simple progress was a comfort.
I listened to the president address the nation while I scraped lead paint from the steps. Mindful of the harmful dust, I sanded by hand. Two hours per step, 14 steps. Gone was the lead paint — and my fingerprints.
I was working over every inch of this old rowhouse, along the way discovering its secrets. A doorframe held the marks of some parent who dutifully recorded a child’s height. Guilty about erasing the hand-painted jungle scene in the nursery, I left a lone giraffe on the wall. Who hid the stack of old Playboy magazines on the top shelf of the closet?
Wood panels covered the living room walls. I took them down to find pencil sketches of human anatomy, like the work of an art student or serial killer.
My reporter curiosity kicked in, and I dug. The house was built in the 19th century for men who worked the textile mills on the Jones Falls, making the famed cotton duck sailcloth. A November 1921 article in The Baltimore Sun told of an out-of-work bridegroom who swallowed poison in the house. I’ve encountered no ghosts, but the lights inexplicably turn on and off. I chalk it up to old wiring.
Another article in The Sun told of a widowed grandmother who lived in the house and married the 80-year-old grandfather next door, a romance born from the evenings they sat and talked on their respective porches. The writer observed, “It is not only youth that feels magic of a summer night.”
There was a history of love and death in the old rowhouse. Come spring, I thought of them all as I fell asleep at night with the chimney swifts chirping inside the walls.
Psychologists talk of “rootedness” and the yearning to claim a place of our own. It’s never been stronger. In quarantine, we spent more time at home than ever before, noticing every crack and creak. The virus brought an explosion of renovation projects. Contractors and hardware stores saw business jump. I found Sherwin-Williams sold out one day of white paint.
Of course there came hard lessons. When I re-glazed the bathtub with the window open, wind blew the porcelain spray back in my face. My throat burned for days; I got serious about wearing a mask. I learned to wear glasses when rolling paint on the ceilings or else find my eyeballs speckled with paint splatter.
When the furloughs came, my girlfriend spent one week scraping paint off the living room floor only to uncover the black stains of some forgotten 19th century floor coating.
The next five days, I pushed a drum sander back and forth (always with the grain), and went to bed with my hands vibrating. Slowly the honey emerged from the yellow pine boards. It took yet another furloughed week to apply the varnish thick enough to fill the old termite tracks.
Finished, we paused to look upon our work. No more toe catchers. The floor shined, smooth as glass. We took off our shoes. Nine months had passed since I bought the rowhouse. It felt like a home.
In the garden last summer, I knelt and proposed. Yet another tale for this old rowhouse.