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A Landlord Who Takes Recycling Very Seriously

Marlin Utz turned two grain bins into six apartments in the 1970s. Tenants love the cylindrical living, despite strangers' chuckles.

September 20, 2000|ANNE HADDAD | BALTIMORE SUN

When Marlin Utz bought the vacant Quaker City Flour Mill building in Hampstead, Md., in 1970, he tried to sell the two 40-foot-tall steel grain bins in the back. Then he tried to give them away.

"I couldn't get rid of them," Utz said. "So I said, 'The heck with it. I'll turn them into apartments.' "

They aren't luxurious. They aren't in the same league as the Victorian-style homes on Main Street. They draw stares and chuckles from out-of-town guests who attend weddings at the banquet hall next door on Gill Avenue. But for Elmer Buchman, circular Apt. 3 has been home, sweet home for 12 years. "It's plenty good enough for me," said Buchman, 75. "I plan on spending the rest of my days here."

For Christine Spinnato, 30, who moved in last month, a quirky round apartment next to the railroad tracks is a bargain at $360 a month, utilities included. "People tease me--I live in a silo," Spinnato said. "I always thought they would be neat to live in."

Artists live and paint in factories converted to studio lofts. Some people live in converted barns, schoolhouses, smokehouses and summer kitchens turned into fashionable digs.

But not many people live in grain bins.

Utz might have been an urban-planning visionary when he spent the 1970s buying empty buildings and breathing new life into them. "I used to drive by buildings and wonder, 'How many apartments could I get in there?' " Utz said. "Now everybody's turning old buildings into apartments."

Including a pair of old grain bins.

"They've been called silos so many times, but they're not," said Utz.

For the record, silos have a domed top and are designed to make silage--corn plants chopped and fermented into a moist meal for cows. These apartments-in-the-round are in converted grain bins, not silos. The bins are probably 50 or 60 years old and once stored as many as 40,000 bushels of perfect wheat berries and corn kernels before the grains were ground into flour at the nearby mill, which faltered and eventually closed in the late 1960s.

Mistakenly calling them silos has made them famous. Collier's Encyclopedia called the bins silos when it featured the twin towers in its 1975 yearbook under the entry "Recycled Buildings."

A picture shows Utz standing in front of what he created with the help of carpenter Kenny Smith and plumber Ray Ruby. Utz has been a real estate agent and landlord for about 40 years and once owned a construction business.

For the grain bins, he sketched a rough floor plan on note paper: 21 feet in diameter, 346 square feet, main room, bathroom, kitchen, window, door.

Each of the six apartments is identical. Each has a main room with a kitchen on one side that opens to a living room/bedroom. The roomy bathroom includes a large clothes closet. Each apartment has one window and one door.

"We took a torch and cut the doorways," Utz said. Workers set down a concrete block foundation inside and set floor joists on the foundation with subflooring on top. They built walls using studs and drywall, and worked their way up two more stories the same way. They inserted insulation and then finished the walls in brown paneling that curved along the circular interior. A drop ceiling topped it off.

White-painted wrought iron and steel decks connect the bins and form a staircase, landings and balconies for three stories.

Utz knew the apartments were attention-getters, so he tried to get one of his tennis buddies, who co-owned a Coca-Cola bottling plant, to paint the towers as Coke and Sprite cans.

"We would put a straw on top," Utz said. "Wouldn't that have been neat?"

But his buddy declined, so Utz first painted them barn red. The latest paint job is chocolate brown.

In the 1980s, Utz sold the grain bins and the adjacent mill that he had converted into apartments and medical offices to two doctors, Josue and Christina Laredo, who had been leasing space from him in the ground floor of the mill. The Laredos still own the property.

"This is great," tenant Spinnato said of her new digs. "This is perfect. It's just hard to hang a picture on the wall."

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