The roof leaked something fierce. Sunlight shone through the holes in the gutters. The carpet was moldy and the wallpaper, well, the wallpaper was simply hideous.
And yet, last fall, as she contemplated the peeling green linoleum floor in the kitchen of the 1880s farmhouse in Silver Spring, rain pouring down that awful palm tree wallpaper, Sue Eynon Lark decided to make an offer. Developers with deep pockets were outbidding each other for the right to tear the ramshackle old place down and replace it with five McMansions. But Lark had a vision. She'd been searching for the perfect place for two years. And she knew immediately that this was it.
There was no central heating. And she didn't care. There was no way she could afford the $799,000 asking price. And she didn't care. Seven different insurance companies turned her down before Lloyd's of London agreed. And by December, she and her partner, Nancy Eynon Lark, owned the old farmhouse.
The vision was as simple as it was unusual: find a big house, preferably one with character, restore it lovingly, build bed-and-breakfast-like private suites and make comfortable common rooms. And create an affordable community for teachers.
They're advertising with the school system and offering leases that run summer to summer so that newly arriving teachers can settle in before the school year begins. Lark envisions lectures. Poetry readings. Deep and lasting friendships forged over the years. Or at least big parties in the dining room that can seat 20.
"Our motto is, a cooperative living community with a commitment to education," said Lark, a full-time hospice nurse and small-time real estate investor. "We thought about nurses. But nurses are too cranky."
On a recent evening, Lark stepped gingerly over paint-spattered drop cloths as workers busily replastered ceilings and tore out walls. She proudly showed off the 20-room farmhouse, once owned by Elizabeth McColloch, who raised produce on 130 surrounding acres and sold it to embassies in the District. Lark pointed to the hole in the ceiling of the library where a new staircase will be built, the newly installed Jacuzzi tubs, walnut paneling and new ceramic tile bathrooms.
The rooms have been divided so that five tenants can each have their own bedroom, their own sitting room and their own bathroom in what Lark is calling private "suites." Some suites have as many as four rooms. Lark is paying utilities and is hiring a service to clean the common areas every week. The suites, which run from $950 to $1,400 a month, have names like The Library. The Attic. The Left Wing. "The joke is, this house has no right wing," Lark said, laughing.
In the spacious living room, she has put overstuffed couches, a flat-screen JVC TV and the premium cable she can't afford at home. And in the now wheat-colored kitchen with cream-tiled floor, she has a wireless network and a fax and copy machine to help teachers do their work at home.
In all, she has spent $135,000 in just under two months in extensive renovations and repairs. She dropped $10,000 at the Fire Place Shop alone just to put gas-burning fireplaces in every room.
And, although the house is still in a state of chaos -- piles of wood and debris and two shiny white toilets still sitting on the lawn -- every room has already been spoken for. At a champagne open house in December, a few nonteachers showed up early and offered to help cook if they could have the chance to live there.
Lark said two teachers, stuck in leases elsewhere, are double-paying rent just to save their spot.
Jen Moore, a Hill staffer for Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), said she couldn't believe there could be such a rural oasis -- an 1880s farmhouse on six wooded acres with a gravel road, an old smokehouse and deer and fox -- snug in the middle of a 1980s Silver Spring subdivision, with the requisite curved curbs and cul-de-sacs. "My boss is on the Committee on Education and the Workforce," she said. "I hope that counts."
She and John Lynch, a student, will be living in the old milking barn-turned-cabin on the property, once the paperwork to subdivide goes through in the spring.
"We don't want to give an appearance of discrimination," Lark said by way of explaining why Moore, Lynch, a filmmaker and PhD candidate will be living in the community. "But we want to make this very attractive to teachers." Besides, the PhD candidate is going to be a college professor, "so I think that counts," Lark said.
Lark's vision for creating such a community took hold in August 2000 when she read a story about how many teachers new to Montgomery County were scrambling to find decent places to live. Some had to live in basements; others commuted for hours from as far away as Frederick County or Washington County.
"We just thought we should serve that community," Lark said, who with her partner owns a few other small rental houses and an apartment building in Montgomery County.
The problem is indeed acute, said Tom Israel, executive director of the Montgomery County Education Association. Of the 10,000 teachers in the county, the vast majority live in Olney, Germantown and Gaithersburg, he said, where there are forests of affordable condo and townhouse developments. But the location can often mean long and frustrating commutes.
"Affordable housing is a huge issue," Israel said. "Of the 1,000 new teachers that have been hired every year, many come from out of state and about half are right out of college. They have no money for a down payment or even first month's rent on an apartment. There have been situations where people have been living in hotels."
Still, in real estate parlance, you create a niche, you target a segment of the market, you look for investments that will haul in the dough. You don't, generally speaking, look to "serve" anyone.
And that's where an understanding of Lark's Quaker roots and the way she plays Monopoly comes in.
Lark explains: When people who didn't have money landed on her properties, she'd lend them the rent. They, in turn, did favors when she landed on their properties. "People were really annoyed. But I ended up being the winner. And nobody had to leave the game early."
She translates that view into the often rapacious world of rental real estate: "Do the right thing and care about people. You wind up more successful than most real estate investors. People pitch in because they feel cared about."
The view also helps explain how she chose the name for the farmhouse. She and her partner Nancy, director of education for the American Association of University Women, tried out Teachers Way. Then Riley's Tuition, after their son at University of Maryland. Then Lark thought of the games she played at the Sandy Spring Quaker school. Frazzlyram. Friedlefrapp. Brindledorf. And Brindledorf stuck. Don't ask her how to play it. The only thing she remembers is that no one had to compete to play it and everyone had fun.
Lark spent many sleepless nights in the fall, worried that others won't understand her vision. Some neighbors have grumbled privately, well, what kind of community is this? A commune? A kibbutz? What kind of teachers? Teachers for world peace? Only one neighbor has been outright hostile, Lark said.
Even Lark's friend and longtime real estate adviser, Jeannie Ahearn, didn't get it, at first. Then Lark went to work on her. "I'm a convert now," Ahearn said. "This is really unique. I don't know of anyone doing anything like it. Most people who own rental properties, their first and foremost consideration is their return on investment. For Sue and Nancy, they're prudent investors, but they also get their satisfaction from helping five people and creating a setting where they would feel camaraderie."
Gladys Smith is one tenant who is already camping out at Brindledorf with her 12-year-old daughter Kimara. And for her, it has been an unexpected dream come true.
A single mother, dog owner and PhD candidate who had been living in Harlem, Smith found out in late December, during her final exams, that a grant she had applied for at Howard University came through. She needed a place in the D.C. area immediately. Friends told her Montgomery County had the best schools. So she went on the Internet and found Brindledorf (www.brindledorf.com), where Lark has posted old photographs, descriptions of the suites and a diary of her search for the perfect communal home.
"On the Internet, it sounded like a hippie-type thing. I didn't think I would like it. And when I drove up, it looked a little shaggy," Smith said. "But I saw the separate suites, the separate entrances, how you could have total privacy as well as common areas to be part of a community, and I really liked it."
Her first night there, she had a late class. As she rushed out the door, she showed Kimara where the frozen TV dinners were. Sue and Nancy Eynon Lark, visiting with their son Riley, said not to worry. When Smith returned home later that evening, the four were sitting around the fireplace, eating sandwiches.
"Before we moved, I was worried about moving to a new community and not knowing anyone. That can feel so isolating. Sometimes I have late classes, and I worried about my daughter being alone in an apartment," she said. "Now, [fellow tenant] John has offered to help me if I need help picking her up from school. He and Jen are taking her bike riding while I work in the lab this Saturday. And we all had a big Super Bowl party in the living room. This is really a perfect place for me."
For all her passion and her angst about her vision, Lark's final entry into her Web diary says it all: "We built it. And they came."