Arts & Culture

Artist Dan Van Allen Lives In His Own Personal Museum

Van Allen—perhaps the most interesting man in Baltimore—shows us around his two connecting rowhomes in Sowebo.
Dan Van Allen in front of his connecting rowhomes in Sowebo. —Photography by Christopher Myers

There is an instant shock when you first step foot in Daniel Van Allen’s home, as your eyes decide where to land first.

There are just so many options. And then Van Allen, 70, starts talking and doesn’t stop for three and a half hours, until you find yourself back on the street, your tastebuds still singing from the pawpaws and homemade absinthe you’ve just consumed in his basement kitchen. It’s a wild, slightly disorienting, but amazing ride.

“I’m a Renaissance man,” says Van Allen, the preservationist, activist, outsider artist, and forager. He’s also a founder of the Arabber Preservation Society and a boater on his hand-carved canoes.

His two connecting rowhomes in Sowebo, built in 1850, contain 19 rooms, each with a different theme—Egyptian room, Mayan room, coconut bathroom, voodoo room, walnut room, Hindu room. It’s Architectural Digest meets the American Visionary Art Museum, and Van Allen is curator, docent, archivist, and tour guide. (He does in fact give regular tours of his home to MICA students.)

The back of Van Allen’s office functions as his gallery and is also the first room guests see when they come inside the house. Currently he has a considerable amount of owl paintings.
A peek into Van Allen’s office and his art-filled stairways. He especially loves to collect paint-by-number artwork.
“I abhor white walls in galleries,” says Van Allen, whose collection includes Buddha, Inuit carvings, and little Chinese gods.

There is no interviewing Van Allen. There is listening and absorbing and delighting. He knows so much about so much: Chinese gods, antlers, paint-by-numbers, gourds, the Baroque style, straw man art, Fèt Gede (Haiti’s Day of the Dead), furniture restoration, community gardens, the flute-playing god Kokopelli, the underground arts scene, and yoga.

So many of his stories start with brilliant non sequiturs: “I was on stilts” or “I used to keep turtles in here in the winter” or “this was the gourd-atorium because I had all my gourds up here” or “we had house rabbits—five or six of them” or “we used to do guerilla tree planting.”

Van Allen was born in Alexandria, Virginia, but spent most of his childhood in Seabrook, Maryland. “I grew up in a mid-century modern house. [My parents] were of the generation that wanted everything sleek and modern,” he says. “We were the generation that made fun of it.”

“This would be shocking, of course,” he says, looking around his home. “All the clutter. The decorations.”

But later, when asked about using the word clutter, he pushes back. “We keep it from being cluttered. You can see a difference between a museum—our house is more like a museum—and an actual hoarder’s house,” he says.

His connection to his collections isn’t a monetary one—most items were purchased for $5 or less at flea markets or gifted to him—but one of inspiration. “I don’t really value material things. I value art.”

The main bedroom, also known as the Egyptian room, has a ceiling painted with 24 karat gold and several antler pieces made by Van Allen. “I’d rather impress people with imagination than trying to pretend I have money.”
A photo of Van Allen and his partner and fellow artist Katherine Fahey perched on a typewriter he found at a thrift store.
The voodoo room, known as vodou in Haiti, was inspired by Van Allen’s time in the Caribbean country, and includes an altar filled with photographs of loved ones who have passed away. Fahey often plays music on the couch.
The Mayan room, Van Allen’s favorite space because of the murals he’s painted, is also where he spends time doing yoga and lying in the hammock while listening to records.

That includes the work of his partner, Katherine Fahey, a crankie artist, who lives with Van Allen. “I’d never known anyone quite like Dan,” she says, tucked on a couch in the voodoo room. The two—clearly smitten with each other—married in early October in Leakin Park.

Fahey says she’s still surprised by something in the house almost every day. “I’ll say, ‘Dan, was that there before?’ and he’s like, ‘Yes, that’s been there since you moved in.’ But he knows where everything is. There was a tiny little object missing over there,” she says, pointing to a corner, laughing. “And Dan was like, ‘Where’s that thing?’”

But judging by Fahey’s growing cricket cage collection, she’s leaning into the lifestyle hard. It’s the Van Allen spell. His gentle way of speaking, the Harry Potter glasses, the occasional top hat. His closet full of leftovers from the 14Karat Cabaret and other festivals. (He ran the Sowebo Arts & Music Festival for six years and volunteered for 18.) It’s the art car parked out back—a painted Volkswagen Transporter—and his deep love for eccentric Baltimore.

“I could live anywhere in the world I want…but I love Baltimore,” he says. “I traveled enough. I really enjoy the neighborhood. Now they’re calling me ‘sir.’”

The two also amass “stuff with cranks” because of Fahey’s medium.
Fahey and Van Allen sitting on the deck that leads to the treehouse. The two were married in early October.
“I’ve never known anyone quite like Dan,” she says; Van Allen’s main studio, where he installed the ceiling and the door to separate it from his office. Fahey uses the back space for her own work as a crankie artist.

And the elder statesman of Baltimore’s underground art scene seems perfectly content with that title. We’re standing at the stove that’s been in the house since the 1920s—a Magic Chef gas range—and he’s making coffee with his Bialetti stovetop espresso maker. He must relight the pilot light each time he uses the Magic Chef—but it works like a charm and soon the java is percolating.

“This is the watermelon cabinet,” says Van Allen, pointing to the pantry painted to look like a watermelon rind. “Behind you is the snake altar.” I barely have time to ask, “What’s a snake altar?” before we’re heading outside to feed the chickens.

The home’s basement kitchen that includes a Magic Chef gas range that has been in the house since the 1920s, next to the pantry painted to look like a watermelon rind. “The only thing I buy new is food,” says Van Allen.
Van Allen’s homemade absinthe, which he doles out to visitors in shot glasses.

Later I tell him, “You have a house of stories.”

“There’s many stories,” agrees Van Allen, gesturing to his voodoo altar. “When I first started that, I was like, this is a great place to put little souvenirs and things that have meaning. But the whole house has become a voodoo altar.”