For years, Dr. Martina Callum has traveled the country and the world as a locum tenens physician, providing temporary health care in communities where few doctors exist.
But after months on the road, she'd return home to an apartment in White Marsh that could barely hold the furniture, art and other items that she had accumulated over a lifetime.
"I was flying back and forth to places like Alaska and paying a lot of rent here," says Callum, who was raised in East Baltimore. "My mother was upset that I didn't own a house, though I did have one years ago. I needed a home to call my own."
Fortunately, Callum's mother, noted Maryland genealogist Agnes Kane Callum, had already scouted a location.
"She said, 'I know where a house is. Come and get me.' I picked her up and we went to see this house off of Old York Road," says Callum of that summer day back in 2005. "It was abandoned and a mess. There was a hospital bed on the porch and a headboard from the last century. The foliage was so overgrown you couldn't walk. It looked crazy, but it was a house."
As fate would have it, Callum's mother also knew the owner, an elderly distant relative. The woman's immediate family had owned the property since the 1960s but had boarded it up in recent years.
"We went to see her," Callum recalls. "I asked about buying it and she surprised me by saying, 'You can have it.'" They agreed upon a price of $5,000. Then the doctor began to navigate a maze of red tape involving the property deed and title, along with back taxes and other issues. The woman died a few months after their first meeting.
"When I visited her in the hospital she told me, 'Thank God, Papa's house is still in the family,'" Callum says.
Today, Callum is restoring the three-story Victorian, built circa 1900 on an 8,000-square-foot lot in Pen Lucy, a historic neighborhood in Northeast Baltimore.
The age of the four-bedroom, 21/2-bath house was one matter — there were even gas lamps on the third floor — but the home had also been ravaged by neglect.
"Squatters had come in, and there was trash everywhere, although they hadn't completely stripped the copper pipes," she says. "The basement had some flooding, the furnace didn't work. It was closed in and musty."
The yard was no better; the weeds were so high that after the grass was cut, Callum was "blown away," to discover a two-car stone garage.
Still, she looked beyond the obvious and saw potential. "I knew the bones of the house were good. I got really lucky."
Though she had no previous experience rehabbing a home, Callum became a self-taught Dr. Fix-It, as comfortable donning work boots and a tool belt as a stethoscope and scrubs.
In her free time, she studied how-to books, watched HGTV and other home-improvement shows, and consulted local experts. She hired pros — including an electrician, carpenter and plumber — to perform major jobs such as replacing the sewer lines and rewiring the house.
But whenever possible, Callum tackled projects herself, in some cases enlisting the help of friends.
"We basically gutted every room down to the beams except the kitchen," says Callum, who moved in in 2007. "I learned how to use a saw. I learned how to lay ceramic tile with a book; we were going page by page. I helped tar the roof. We turned and seeded the soil. I even purchased a pickup truck to haul supplies."
In spite of Callum's enthusiasm, there were occasional missteps. She spent hours steaming off all the wallpaper on the first floor before realizing that the material underneath was plaster. With cracks and imperfections, much of it wasn't worth saving. "I wound up tearing almost all of it out and putting in drywall," she says.
With no subfloor underneath the pine floors, Callum made a decision to cover them with red hardwood rather than refinish them.
Callum estimates that she's put about $100,000 into the place so far.
"I call it a 'paycheck renovation,'" she chuckles. "Everything's been done in stages. And it's still not finished."
Still, Callum takes pride in the many ways she's returned the house to its former glory.
For instance, the tin roof was restored for $350 — complete with eco-friendly heat-reflecting features — by a Pennsylvania company that worked with Baltimore's Living Classrooms Foundation.
The original cedar shingles on the exterior of the house are now painted white. The wooden banisters on the staircases also have stood the test of time.
Meanwhile, Callum has decorated in an eclectic style, mixing modern and traditional furniture, flea market finds, and artistic treasures from her travels.
On the first level, where the spacious foyer, living room and dining areas are painted a shade of wheat, she's installed recessed lighting and hung several chandeliers — including silver and copper designs with a contemporary feel.
Here and there are colorful Persian rugs, a tan overstuffed couch, a green crushed-velvet chair, leopard-print silk throw pillows, mother-of-pearl tables and carved wooden stools from Ghana.
The dining room, with a lavender color palette, has a mahogany table but few other formal pieces. Instead, Callum has put in a 42-inch flat-screen television, DVD player and stereo, so the room "doubles as an entertainment center."
On the same level is the summer kitchen, with its original sliding pocket door. One part of the kitchen has been converted into a pantry, the other half into a powder room, painted mint green.
Callum knocked out walls on the second level to create a spacious master bedroom suite. There are French doors, a walk-in closet and a master bath with a Jacuzzi, double vanity, black granite counters and a frosted-glass chandelier.
On the third floor, she's built a home gym and converted the remaining space into a library filled with first editions by such authors as James Baldwin. The floor also houses Callum's cherished family photos and her collection of African-American memorabilia.
For all of her travels and appreciation of other cultures, she looks forward to coming home.
Callum works in her garden, tending tomatoes, peppers and corn. She relaxes on her large front porch, filled with wrought-iron furniture that she rescued and repainted. She gazes at two huge silver maple trees — each more than a century old — that tower above the house.
"It's very comfortable," she says. "I am absolutely so in love with this house."
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Making the dream
Dream exterior: Boasting 29 windows and 12-foot ceilings, the house is situated on an 8,000-square-foot lot in Pen Lucy, a historic neighborhood in Northeast Baltimore.
Dream design: The wooden front door that residents used more than a century ago remains. Its transom is made of Tiffany stained glass.
Dream interior: Throughout the home, colorful art abounds. Her pieces include a colorful oil painting, "Summertime in Baltimore," by the late Tom Miller, black-and-white and sepia-tone photographs by local artist Camilla Blackwell and famed photographer James VanDerZee, and sculptures and mixed-media works from around the world.