When Bob and Madelaine Fletcher bought their Baltimore row house five years ago, it didn't have some things they needed, like a decent kitchen or usable bathroom, and it had several things they didn't want, like a lot of dark green paint and an extremely narrow hallway on the first floor.
But it also had a lot of exactly what they did want: Room.
"It was just a large space," Madelaine says, "and that was attractive."
They are only the third owners of the circa-1880 house. The previous owners hadn't done much to harm the house, the Fletchers say. For instance, it hadn't been carved up into a warren of tiny apartments, as many of the neighborhood's other houses had been. But there hadn't been many improvements, either.
"We knew immediately that we had to do the kitchen," Madelaine says. "It was too grim."
"We're quick on recognizing the obvious," Bob says with a laugh.
They quickly hired a contractor to help get the second-floor bath working and they consulted an architect, who happened to be a neighbor, about plans for the kitchen.
"We wanted to make sure that we didn't make a mistake there," Madelaine says.
Moving two door locations created space for two walls of counters and appliances and a long wall of pantry units. "It was sort of low-key architecture," Madelaine says. "He just did the drawings and then we took it from there. It made sense for us . . . because I think that, left to our own devices, we would not have figured out that we could move the outside doorway and the inside doorway."
Then they sat back and waited to see what the house would tell them.
"We lived here some months before we plotted out what to do," Madelaine says. "One of the things I felt coming into this house was that we probably needed to be in here and think it through."
They're about halfway through the rehab now. The first floor is finished, the second floor is largely finished, and the third floor is targeted for reconstruction.
Along the way they've gotten ideas from many sources -- magazines, neighbors, craftspeople. They haven't drastically changed the layout of the rooms as they found them, but they have updated the spaces in interesting ways.
A typical Baltimore row house of its era, the house originally had, on the first floor, an entrance hall with a vestibule and staircase, a front parlor with pocket doors, a back parlor narrowed by a back hallway, a large "closet" or bath space, a dining room with back staircase, and kitchen added in the early 20th century.
The Fletchers knew they had to get rid of that dark, narrow hallway and open the entire space up. They left the front parlor entrance, with the pocket doors, but removed the wall between the two parlors.
"What we decided was that if we left the configuration [of front and back parlors], we would have two living rooms," Madelaine says. "And even when we knocked down the walls, you could still make two living rooms."
But they wanted a family room -- "A room that we could sort of fall into that wasn't necessarily on view," as Madelaine puts it.
Then a neighbor invited them to a party in his renovated row house. He had opened up the first floor and used the space as a combination living room and dining room.
"And it looked really nice," Madelaine says. "So I said, that's not a bad idea, why don't we do that."
The former dining room became their den. "We decided there wasn't any reason to have the dining room next to the kitchen," she says, noting that the former dining room wasn't all that big and besides, it had three doorways and two windows. Now it's a comfortable space with a dramatic wall of built-in floor-to-ceiling bookcases.
Another idea for the combined parlor space came from a plasterer who was working in the house.
"The problem is that where the [old front parlor] wall and ceiling meet is rounded," Bob explains. But the other side is square.
"We thought there should be some kind of break
between the two." They thought of putting in a bulkhead at the ceiling to link the two sides, but the plasterer suggested they use half-columns.
They bought a standard porch column, had it cut in half, and put the halves on the facing ends of the remaining walls.
"It worked out well," Bob says, because he built a bulkhead on the square side of the former wall. "I put all kinds of piping and electrical wires in there, because that's where everything is going to go to the third floor."
On the second floor, a back bedroom has become a combination exercise and laundry room; it also opens onto a new deck. As for the third floor, they are again working with an architect to fine-tune their vision of the space as a master suite. It will have a large bath with a whirlpool tub -- "And closets," Madelaine says. "Walk-in closets."
"We wanted the bedroom up there," Bob says, "because of the view," which includes a glimpse of water. "It's kind of a nice view . . . to get up in the morning and look out."
Next: Design considerations, stealing space.
Mr. Johnson is construction manager for Neighborhood Housing Services of Baltimore. Ms. Menzie is Home Editor of The Sun.
If you have questions, comments, tips or experiences to share about working on houses, write to us c/o HOME WORK, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, Md. 21278. Questions of general interest will be answered in the column; comments, tips and experiences will be reported in occasional columns.