One year ago, my husband fulfilled one of my wildest dreams in the worst possible way. He bought me a home in Baltimore City.
Bruce is a U.S. Naval Academy graduate and an Eagle Scout. I am a two-time James Beard Award–winning journalist and author, known for my dedication to historic preservation. (I have rescued more than 400 Black cookbooks, many of them rare, dating to 1827.) So, when a new job called us to the Mid-Atlantic, we could not resist the allure of its lush green spaces, the Chesapeake Bay, and, of course, its affordable pockets of spectacular architecture.
For us, repurposing is a way of life, whether we are restoring an old Victorian home or accessorizing new construction with reclaimed wood, salvaged hardware, and primitive stone. We gave new life to a vacant center-hall colonial in Shaker Heights, Ohio, by updating its two-in-one kitchen—half the appliances were for kosher cooking, the other half for everyday meal prep. We raised our kids in Austin, Texas, in a new, semi-custom home that we outfitted with a flagstone façade, iron front doors, and slate floors. And we planned to retire in the custom home we built on the fourth fairway in Aurora, Colorado. The kitchen was the centerpiece of that house, with its large island, topped with Rain Forest Brown marble leathered with a rough, hand-chiseled edge, and a stacked slate backsplash.
Along the way, I founded a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to restoring a historic house as a community space where celebrating cultural cooking could spur racial reconciliation. We considered all of this as we contemplated our options, from the rolling hills of Maryland to the quaint villages of Virginia.
But Baltimore City? Who would believe it possible to comingle suburban fantasies with urban renewal and race tolerance? We did, it turns out. Seduced by the movement to revitalize Baltimore and the charms of Charles Village, we purchased one of its “Painted Ladies” at auction.
Charles Village is a “distinctive historic district,” according to the National Register of Historic Places. It is located within the boundaries of Baltimore City and encompasses about 45 blocks. Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore Museum of Art, Wyman Park, and several regal churches are located here. The majority of its residences, known as the Painted Ladies because of their brightly colored exteriors, are row houses built between 1895 and 1915.
Classic architectural elements ornament the homes. These include pedimented front porches, bowed fronts, bay windows, Dutch gables, pyramidal and conical roofs, small balconies and stained glass windows and transoms. Most of the housing is set back from the street. Many of the small front yards are well-landscaped, accented by perennials, from fragrant rose borders to ferns, hostas, lilies, and magnificent bearded iris. Oak trees, Japanese maples, and crepe myrtles line the streets. Ours is one of several yards anchored by an ancient fig tree.
We discovered this magical place when a friend mentioned that an abandoned row house in her neighborhood was heading for auction. In two days. Rodents occupied the property, making it a nuisance and a community hazard. A severe roof leak destroyed part of a second floor bedroom and the kitchen. The plumbing and electric systems needed updating.
Otherwise, the house was a sound, majestic remnant of a bygone era. Pocket doors lend graceful elegance to the parlor, which would become my library. Gaslights; original wood window shutters; and ornate fireplace mantels embellished with mirrors, ceramic tile, and beautiful wood trim and scrollwork glamorize spaces where I plan to offer social-justice meetings.
It took almost a year to ratify the sale because the auction house, citing an undisclosed clerical error, abruptly returned our deposit and put the house back in the auction inventory. Undaunted, we attended the subsequent auction, bid, and prevailed. Again. This time, we moved quickly to obtain funding through the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 203K Rehabilitation Loan Program. We cleared the landscape, discarded floor-to-ceiling debris, and secured the roof to stop further water damage. We engaged a contractor who claimed experience working with HUD’s 203K Loan program, boasting “60 years in business.”
Since then, the contractor has completed and been paid for just one single job, the roof replacement. He increased the budget for that repair by $3,000, without our consent, but we paid his invoice anyway, just to keep the project on time. The contractor signed a lien waiver and release acknowledging the bill had been paid in full, but to our surprise he began pressuring us for more money within 30 days. He demanded that we submit an invalid “change order request” to the bank for the same roof job, claiming an additional cost increase of $15,000 due to “emergency unforeseen circumstances.” We were not notified of any emergency. He took no precautions to protect the home, other subcontractors, or the U.S. Postal Service employees navigating the property daily. He provided no receipts. When we refused, he began slow-walking the rest of the work, and harassed us in combative and threatening emails, sent at all hours of the night, for nearly six months Eventually, he abandoned the project.
Today, we feel victimized by the system. As new Maryland residents, we hoped that institutional oversight by the Federal Housing Authority, the Maryland Department of Labor, and the Better Business Bureau would protect us and our new investment from potential construction industry misconduct in a troubled city.
Yet, a contractor with perceived superiority and power has acted with impunity, as if he is above the law; a construction industry arbitrator—not a contract-law expert—will determine our fate. And, we are being worn down by legal expenses, temporary living costs, and sleepless nights.
We are hopeful, but in the face of all that, the roof still leaks.
Toni Tipton-Martin is a two-time James Beard Award–winning journalist and the author of The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks and Jubilee: Recipes From Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks.
Originally Appeared on Architectural Digest