When Alexander Baer first looked at the penthouse on the top floor of The Warrington in the 1990s, he was completely taken with the view from the apartment’s two terraces. One faced east, and offered “a city view” spanning the tree-lined streets of Guilford to Key Bridge in the south. The other faced west, and offered what Baer dubbed the “country view”: the green lawns and sedate buildings of the Johns Hopkins University campus.
But, alas, the apartment featured something Baer found untenable: a dead end. One room led to another before ending abruptly, which meant guests at Baer’s frequent dinners and parties would have no opportunity to “flow” through the apartment. Instead, they’d have to turn around and retrace their steps. What a shame that such a terrific view was attached to an unworkable living space, Baer thought, putting the penthouse out of his mind.
Then, in 2001, a pair of out-of-towners were driving through the streets of Guilford and fell in love with Baer’s home. Even though the home wasn’t for sale, Baer’s realtor asked if he’d consider selling for the right price. By then, he was looking to shed the large home with its lawn and garden for a simpler lifestyle in Baltimore, especially considering he splits his time between homes in Fire Island, N.Y., Key West, Fla., and New York City.
As luck would have it, the penthouse was back on the market, and Baer returned to look at it. This time, he saw something he hadn’t before: if he converted the west-facing terrace to a den and added a hallway off of it leading to the kitchen and back to the foyer, he could create the flow he needed.
“Terraces are such an important part of apartment living that it never occurred to me to remove one,” says Baer, who owned his own namesake design business from 1972 until 2006, when he sold it to designer Jay Jenkins. “But I knew I’d never really sit out there. I don’t need two terraces. What I need is a room.”
And, of course, he needed flow. “I think flow is very important,” he says. “People don’t want to be trapped. They want to meander from room to room.”
Once The Warrington’s condo board agreed to Baer’s renovation plan, he began the familiar process of identifying how he wanted to live in the space and creating a plan to achieve it, something he’s done for countless clients. “Like any job, I started with the footprint,” he says. “The most beautiful of rooms is not successful unless it works for the client’s needs.”
Baer entertains several times a month, so he knew immediately that he wanted to combine the living room and what had been the dining room to make a grander living room commensurate with the 4,000-square-foot apartment. Then he took the dark media room that had been the dead end and converted it to a roomy dining room that can seat 24, lifting the ceiling in there and in the den to create light-filled, airy rooms.
He knew he wanted a room near the kitchen where he could store his large collection of china and serving ware (items that had been stowed under beds and in closets in his previous Baltimore residences). Since he doesn’t cook much, he made the kitchen smaller, giving him more room for the hallway (though he did install a commercial kitchen because it seemed more appropriate for an older kitchen). And upstairs, he combined two of the three bedrooms into a larger master suite with a closet, bathroom, exercise room and dedicated work space. (Even though Baer sold the business, he continues to do design work for longtime clients.)
As far as his aesthetic for the renovation, the goal was to make the apartment look as if it were from the same era as the 1920 Beaux Arts Warrington itself. The wood floors are new, but are hand-scraped and hand-hewn to look like 18th-century parquet. The foyer features a traditional limestone floor with a black granite border. Since, as Baer says, “the apartment needed everything,” (only one element remains from its previous owners: the door to the guest bathroom), he was working with an essentially blank palette. His other homes are modern or casual; this penthouse was to be a more traditional space, a place where Baer could display the art and china he’s collected over the years. The palette is neutral, with very little pattern in the furnishings and a subtle beige striate faux-finish on the walls. “When you look around, you see a diversity of art,” he says. “That’s what people enjoy looking at here: the assemblage of art.”
Baer declines to name-check his collection, but says he buys things he loves, regardless of whether they’re considered valuable by the art world or not. “There are some important names and some stuff from flea markets,” he says. “The thing is that I love them all.”
That love can be abiding, as it is in the case of Baer’s affection for Chinese export armorial porcelain manufactured from 1760 to 1790, which he began collecting in the early ’80s. And it can be fierce, as in the case of one of his favorite paintings, “Ladies at the Bath,” which hangs above the casual dining area in his living room. The painting, done by Ruskin Williams, was hanging in the house in Key West that Baer eventually bought, but only because the owner agreed to include the painting in the sale. “I put it this way to the owner: I like your house. I love your painting,” he says.
He takes as much pleasure in a plate found at a garage sale for $2 as a work by Picasso, Diebenkorn and Leger, though he does espouse the philosophy that each room ought to have one splurge in it. In his living room, it’s the 18th-century Italian marble mantel with bronze mounts that he bought in New York. Above it hangs a Federal-style convex mirror found in a North Carolina antique store. In the dining room, it’s the French Baccarat chandelier with half-toned prisms and cabochon balls, purchased at Jones Lighting. In the den, it’s the Regency breakfront bookcase.
Up an elegantly curving staircase lies the private area of the penthouse, where Baer “nests” in his bedroom among his art books and computer, and art and objects assembled over a lifetime of collecting. The colors of the books and art pop against the neutral walls, bedding and sisal rug underfoot. In both the master and guest bathrooms, Baer has installed old-fashioned sinks, toilets and showers and traditional wallpaper in an effort to make the apartment seem as though it’s always looked this way.
The cozy guest bedroom features a more dramatic striate on the walls, handsome red window treatments and a pair of multi-color miniature chairs a client gave him— she hated them; Baer loved them. Above the bed hangs a Ken Parker abstract; on the wall adjacent is a Renaissance-era painting. “It doesn’t matter that they’re not from the same era,” he says. “If it pleases your eye, you should have it around.”
With every design choice he’s made in the penthouse, Baer seems to be delivering the same message: that his home is formal but not fussy, that beautiful things shouldn’t be hidden away for protection— and that nothing should be taken too seriously. “I use everything I have,” he says. “If it breaks, it breaks. It should be enjoyed.”
Walking through the penthouse, it’s clear that Baer does enjoy everything in his home, but perhaps nothing so much as that magical view.
Wall finishes The Valley Craftsmen, 410-366-7077, http://www.valleycraftsmen.com
Window treatments Drapery Contractors, 410-727-5333, http://www.draperycontractors.com
Flooring MasterCare Flooring, 410-242-6401, http://www.mastercarefloors.com