After living for nearly two years in a corporate rental apartment, BSO Music Director Marin Alsop wanted a place that felt like home.
"I wanted to have my own space," says Alsop, who also shares a house in Denver with her partner Kristen Jurkscheit and their five-year-old son Auden. "I started looking at a lot of high rises with a Realtor, and one day I finally said to her, 'I'm so sorry. I hope you don't think I've wasted your time, but I lived in a high rise in Manhattan, and it's just not what I want.' I said, 'I'd love to live in a church or someplace with real character.'"
Cue the angels singing. Because on the way back from her meeting with the Realtor, Alsop noticed a "For Sale" sign hanging on a Mt. Vernon-area historic church. The building had been converted into four condominiums. She decided to see what was available. Though she was first shown another condominium toward the back of the space, Alsop went wild for the front condo with its majestic, multi-paneled, 12-foot stained glass windows. The space was being rented at the time, but Alsop knew it had to be hers. "Even before I had seen the inside," she recalls, "I knew I wanted to buy it. When I had said I wanted to live in a church, it was like in my dreams, and here I was."
The renters moved out and, by November 2008, Alsop had purchased her dream home. Now she was faced with the daunting prospect of decorating it. (After all, what's the point of having a dream house if it doesn't have a dream interior?) She turned to Steve Appel, co-owner of Belvedere Square's Nouveau Contemporary Goods and senior designer of Whitehead & Appel Interior Design. Alsop and Appel had worked together in 2007, when he transformed her dressing room from fusty to fabulous with the addition of hardwood floors, grass cloth walls, and hip, retro-chic furnishings.
"When I was thinking about trying to decorate a place, I had never used an interior designer—that always seemed like something you do for a hunting lodge," says Alsop. "But Steve's attention to detail was so formidable, I called him when I was looking, and I said, 'Steve, I don't know where I'm going to end up, but I'd like to talk to you about designing whatever space I get,' and then when I found this, and I brought him over, he totally flipped."
While the busy maestra was jaunting between London, Los Angeles, Stockholm, and Spain, Appel began customizing the two bedroom, two-and-a-half-bath space. His challenge? To hit a pitch-perfect decorating note in time for Alsop's Baltimore homecoming in February 2009.
"It needed to fit her like a glove," says Appel. "It needed to have areas where she could relax and write scores, listen to music, and spend time with her son. She also needed a very sophisticated area to entertain BSO patrons. These were her directives. I tried to bring out the ideas that were deep inside of her that she couldn't express in this sort of venue. She could express it in music, but not in interior design."
When Appel first stepped into the space, he had a vision of incorporating elements of the church into the design.
Luckily, thanks to the foresight of builders Louren Roddick and Jerome LeBlond, such items had been painstakingly saved and restored. As a result, Alsop's home is now filled with unique liturgical relics, including pipe organ pedals artfully suspended on a wall in a sitting room, original church pews with inset Minton tiles that stand in as dining room seating, and a massive circa-1900 amber colored converted gas lantern, once hung over the main altar, that now illuminates the dining room table.
"Some guys might pick up a hammer and start swinging," explains LeBlond of saving parts of the original church. "That's what we didn't want to do."
An added decorating bonus: Alsop's parents, both professional musicians, are also inveterate collectors. "Whenever I move somewhere, my parents love to come with a big truck and unload a lot of their antiques like the three-legged tables," chuckles Alsop. "They'll say, 'Oh, this only needs a little work.' I wanted to bring in their love of old things because I love old things, too, but I still wanted a place that was livable and hip and cozy and comfortable."
Appel offered to view her father's collection. After an arduous, nine-hour, snowy drive to her parent's property in Saratoga Springs, NY, he found himself rummaging through two barns and a basement filled with a lifetime's worth of antiques and bric-a-brac.
"Her dad is an obsessive collector," notes Appel. "Antiques Roadshow could be filmed at his house."
Recalls Alsop: "Steve was running around while he was on the phone with me saying, 'Okay, I like that tricycle,' and I'm thinking, 'Tricycle? What are you going to do with a tricycle?'"
Among Appel's finds that are now placed throughout the maestra's home: a wooden scooter from the late 1800s, intricate blue and pink Art Nouveau panels of stained glass, a 1920s black fan with brass blades, a dark walnut Empire-style mirror, an antique manjo (a cross between a mandolin and a banjo), an RCA Victrola, and, of course, that red 1920s tricycle, which is now prominently suspended in an alcove between the sitting and living rooms.
Alsop's own sense of beauty was nurtured through exposure to many forms of art. When she wasn't learning to play the piano (age 2) or taking on the violin (age 5), she helped her parents rehab several fixer-uppers, including a modest two-bedroom home in Westchester, NY, where Alsop's father, Llamar, built a 40-foot cathedral ceiling room for chamber music. "We had this tiny little house with one bathroom, and this huge living room for chamber music," says Alsop with a laugh.
As Alsop grew older, her father purchased the house in Saratoga Springs, NY, a converted Victorian-era nursing home that, at the time, was quite ramshackle.
"I spent my formative years peeling paint off that house," says Alsop. Although the house itself needed extensive work, Alsop's father—always a bit of a dreamer—decided it was a priority to build an addition, a concert hall that seated up to 150 people. "My father loves architecture and has always fancied himself a bit of a designer," she says.
Alsop's father even smuggled in a bit of rare contraband to finish the space. "They used to have these beautiful wooden beams for light poles on the West Side Highway," she says. "When my dad heard they were taking them down, he wanted to put those in the concert hall. He did some deal with one of the workers and picked them up in the middle of the night, but because we didn't have a babysitter, my parents woke me up, and off we all went to the highway. We spent our free time on these crazy projects."
Her parents' anything-goes approach to objects, art, and architecture, made an impact on their only child. "I'm an odd amalgam—I appreciate and have a fairly decent eye for old things, but I also love simplicity and clarity and non-clutter," Alsop says. "I'm a mix of really simple taste and over-the-top taste at the same time. I think it is reflected in this place. I want to respect tradition but do the unexpected, too, and do it in an air of comfort not to put people off."
Those very words could describe Alsop's approach to conducting. After only two seasons, Alsop has made her mark on the BSO, which just signed her to a five-year extension. She has been lauded for making classical music accessible and affordable to all, lowering ticket prices, and designing innovative educational programs for school children.
"The [condo] is a fantastic blend of antique and contemporary, much like Marin's programming at the BSO," says Alsop's former executive assistant, Jeffrey Luther. "She often pairs a contemporary piece of music with a classic piece, putting the older piece in a new context and highlighting the inspiration behind the new piece."
Alsop enjoys the same sense of the unexpected in her adopted hometown.
"It's a little quirky," Alsop says of Baltimore. "It's the perfect combination of east coast city but has a really nice, warm, small town feel to it as well. I find it interesting and curious and different, and the people are so nice. People are always asking, 'How can I help with the Symphony? How can I help with the outreach programs you are doing?' [That's] not usually the first question people ask completely unsolicited."
As Alsop gets ready to launch the BSO's 2009-10 season (beginning September 12), she credits her new space with helping to inspire her.
"I started thinking about how we all share an innate understanding of music and art," explains Alsop. "This season is really a celebration of our shared musical roots and to have this space to come to and reflect, I find really healing and inspiring. Living here, I feel a little bit like I'm in the eye of the storm where everything is going on around me, but my place is very calm. When I'm on the road and in hotels, there is a lot of trying to cope with existing. Finally, having a space that is aesthetically pleasing and emotionally rewarding feels great."