Greg Alexander

A Surprising Move

Baltimore Sun, October 15, 2006

Reaching a milestone birthday can elicit myriad emotions and actions. Sometimes, turning 40 or 50 can cause you to do impulsive things (some good, some bad), throw a big party or take time to reflect on your life. For one Baltimore City homeowner, however, turning 40 had a different effect.

“I was living in a condominium in Washington, D.C., which I had enjoyed living in for the past eight years, and all the sudden, everything about it started to bother me – the noise caused by my neighbors, the small space, tiny kitchen and having no closet space. I had just turned 40 and decided I wanted a more grown-up environment. So, I decided to buy a house,” says Louis Jenny, who last year purchased a renovated 3,600-square-foot brick rowhome in the Penn North neighborhood of Baltimore City.

“Baltimore was not even on my radar. I didn’t bother looking for a house in Washington, D.C., because the market there is so expensive. I looked around some of the suburbs, but even they were ridiculously priced. I lived in D.C. for 18 years, and my friends and I used to joke that – except for an occasional Orioles game – I never thought of even visiting Baltimore. And, now I live here,” Jenny laughs. So, just how did a loyal Washingtonian end up in Charm City?

“I came to visit a friend in Baltimore who had moved from Washington, D.C., and his nephew was working in construction there. He told me that the house his nephew was working on was amazing and would be perfect for me,” Jenny says. “At first, I was against it, primarily due to the size of the house and I wasn’t quite sold on Baltimore. Being so close to Penn Station was a must since I work in D.C. Now, I actually enjoy riding the train in the morning, reading the paper and drinking coffee. It’s quite dignified.

“I first saw the house last April, and while the design was determined, there was no drywall up. However, the contractor and I just saw eye-to-eye on his vision.”

The vision for this home – and for most of the homes he builds – cam via a book published over 15 years ago, says Eric Hoel, president of Community Builders of Baltimore, Inc., who renovated Jenny’s home. Hoel, who grew up in Indiana, was living in Oregon when he came across a book by Christopher Day, Places of the Soul: Architecture and Environmental Design as a Healing Art, which explores how to put the human factor back into the building process. “It just spoke to me, so I wanted to create nurturing and healing spaces in my work. I even went to Whales to meet the author, and he encouraged me to go back to Oregon and pursue natural building, which is a radical form of green building,” Hoel says. “When I renovate homes, I look to incorporate alternative and green technology.”

With this in mind, Hoel purchased the Penn North house, which had been vacant for 15 to 20 years and had previously been split into eight apartments. “I made a promise to the seller that I would turn it into a single-family home. As we opened it up, I wanted to salvage whatever we could.”

One of the primary elements that Hoel wanted to salvage were the pine floor joists, some of which were rotten and beyond repair. Luckily, some of the 9-inch long joists were salvageable, so Hoel decided to utilize them to create the kitchen countertops. “I was a little nervous, at first,” Jenny says, “because I cook a lot and wasn’t sure about wood counters. However, they are sealed and I can put anything on them – hot or cold – and they are fine … and gorgeous.” Jenny adds that the spacious kitchen was one of the major selling points for him since he loves to cook and entertain friends and family. “The kitchen turned out beautifully. It’s a very comfortable space to work in.” The large, galley-style kitchen features stainless steel appliances, ample counterspace and mounted shelves for easy access to dinnerware. The burnt orange walls, hardwood floors and stylish lighting allow the kitchen to glow, complemented by the natural light streaming in from the back deck.

Adjacent to the kitchen is a wet bar and a half bath. Hoel says that he had originally envisioned a butler’s pantry in the space but opted for a wet bar, which is the perfect gathering place for guests. “At every party, guests inevitably end up in the kitchen, but this space allows guests to hang out with me while I am cooking, yet there are not underfoot,” Jenny says. Cabinets and drawers create handy storage for wine glasses and bar accessories, and the wine cooler is perfect for Jenny, a wine aficionado. The countertop mimics the kitchen, while a speckled terracotta domed ceiling and gorgeous tile floor with a circular motif provide character and a unique flair.

The first floor also contains a comfortable, inviting sitting area, which Jenny has outfitted with a new couch, coffee table, two retro chairs that he picked up in Charlottesville, Va., and a unique side table featuring metal gears encased in the glass surface. “I had originally thought that I would put the dining area there but instead decided to put the dining table in the front part of the first floor and use this space to relax and hang out with friends since the atrium above is stunning,” Jenny says. Stunning it is. The brick-clad atrium reaches toward the sky and creates an open three-story space, allowing natural light to bounce around the home. “One of the goals I had when renovating this house – besides the use of natural materials – was to have daylight penetrate the entire house so that it would have a natural, yet refined, feel,” says Hoel. “It’s definitely the focal point and my favorite aspect of the home,” adds Jenny, who says that the paper lanterns that illuminate the atrium were supposed to be temporary but they’ve grown on him.

The stair treads and handrails leading up to the upper two floors are also composed of the former pine floor joists, something that Hoel says made him nervous. “The stairs scared the hell out of me. I knew what I wanted to accomplish, but I had to figure out how to get from vision to reality,” he says, noting that one member of his crew spent three months planing the wood to be used. “Salvaging the floor joists and getting them ready for use took more time than I ever could have anticipated. As a whole, the renovation process went slowly but smoothly,” says Hoel, admitting that he did have to fire the first demolition crew that cut into the main gas line on the first day. “They thanked me by driving a Bobcat through a back wall,” he sighs.

The second floor hosts a large master bedroom, complete with a dressing room and those numerous closets that Jenny was lacking in his former Washington, D.C., condo, and a master bathroom featuring multiple showerheads that help create a spa-like environment. A library and a home office provide a space for working. Meanwhile, a guest room, full bathroom, laundry room and additional sitting area are on the third floor. An inviting leather sofa and large flat-screen television make the third floor sitting area a favorite spot for entertaining. Both the second and third floors overlook the first floor due to the atrium feature. “It’s definitely not a kid-friendly house,” laughs Jenny. Hoel says that the home’s design definitely did not have children in mind. “I figured that being close to Penn Station would attract someone who worked in D.C., and the open floorplan with entertaining in mind – instead of designing what could have been a five- or six-bedroom house – and delivering the ‘wow’ factor would appeal to a gay homeowner. I think it’s a perfect match.”

Due to the spacious and open floorplan, Hoel installed an eco-friendly central air conditioning system with individual units that can be programmed, creating a more efficient zoned cooling system. Radiant heat flooring also was installed throughout the home. “The zoned air conditioning will definitely help keep energy costs lower, although I was nervous about it since it’s new technology. The radiant heating is wonderful in the winter,” adds Jenny, who laughs that, as a Rochester, N.Y., native, he is rarely cold here, although friends have pleaded with him on occasion to turn up the heat. Jenny also purchased a wireless sound system that allows him to control the music throughout the house. He says that future plans include possible adding a rooftop deck, an apartment in the basement and a wall in the back yard to include a garage door.

When asked if the change from a 600-square-foot condominium to a 3,600-square-foot home has been much of an adjustment, Jenny replies, “The upkeep is a bit more work. Mostly, though, I just keep losing things in this house.”

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