Every great house should have a name. Something that reflects its history or family heritage (Mount Clare, Tara, the Spite House), or something purely descriptive (Wuthering Heights, Hayfields, the White House).
The Gartman house in Ruxton doesn't have a plaque with an evocative name. But the stately Georgian colonial, classically styled but newly built, does have a nickname.
"Our joke was that this was the Great House of Consensus," says Stephanie Gartman with a laugh. "I was positive my husband and I would never agree on anything in terms of designs, or be able to actually conceive and execute a house. But we did. He and I literally worked together and agreed on every aspect of the structure."
Although neither of the Gartmans has any architectural training -- he is an executive vice president for a financial corporation, she is "retired" from a banking career -- they designed every element of their suburban manor, from the room sizes to the exterior trim, the shape of the stair balusters to the color of granite on the counter tops.
And when the house was finished and it was time to decorate, Mrs. Gartman handled that, too -- although, she said, her decision disappointed a lot of interior designers around town.
"My husband hates details," she explains. "With very few exceptions, he said, 'Do whatever you think is appropriate.' And I did! No problem!"
The house, formal yet comfortable, reflects the couple's desire to put down roots and enjoy the fruits of their labors. Before it was built, its owners, both Baltimoreans, were career-centered, peripatetic professionals who frequently put in 60-hour weeks at the office. In a handful of years, the Gartmans' work had moved them to St. Louis, Mo., Beverly Hills, Calif., and Portland, Ore.
"We finally said, 'Why are we doing this?' " she says. "we had reached a point where nobody was enjoying life."
So Mrs. Gartman quit her job, Mr. Gartman accepted a new job offer, and the couple and their two grown children made plans to return to their home town, Baltimore.
Mr. Gartman came back first, in May 1989, to begin house-hunting. And he couldn't find a thing -- a least not something that met the family's standards. They wanted a good-sized house with character, made with excellent materials and workmanship and replete with interesting decorative details. Mrs. Gartman, not believing that such houses were not available, soon joined the hunt.
"There just weren't any great homes on the market," she admits. "We thought if we were ever going to build a house, this was probably the time to do it, as I had retired the year before, and could put full-time effort toward the building."
The Gartmans, then living in a Scarlett Place condo belonging to Mr. Gartman's company, bought the property in July, and hired builder Melvin Benhoff Jr. They would, they decided, serve as their own architects.
"We debated whether to use an architect or not, and decided we have lived in so many homes that we really had a good strong sense of what we wanted. We sat down with a paper and pencil and drew out the floor plans, then erased and drew them again. The builder had an architectural draftsman he used, so we sat down with him, and gave him our sketches and drawings, and he put them to scale."
Ground was broken in October of 1989 and, while the house was being built, Mrs. Gartman was on site every day, consulting with Skip Sammis, foreman and master carpenter, who made sure her design decisions were carried out. In many cases, elements had to be custom-made, as they could not be ordered in the size or shape she wanted.
The couple's design choices were not based on any particular historical model, but on "a lifetime of look ing at homes," Mrs. Gartman explains.
"In every home I see, I think, 'Um, this is nice, but I'd do things a little differently.' I've never been one of those people who could say, 'This is the picture of what I'd like my living room to look like.' It's kind of a strange quirk in my personality, but I've always wanted to redesign whatever I see."
Close attention was paid to exquisite materials and old-country workmanship worthy of the house's prototypes in 18th century England. The public rooms have high ceilings garnished with large dentil moldings and classical trim. The floors in the living room and dining room are cherry, and in the foyer, mirror-finished gray granite. The fireplaces look antique, but are actually reproductions by Heritage Mantles in Connecticut.
Acting as her own subcontractor, Mrs. Gartman hired a local cabinetmaker to create the built-ins, choosing ornamentation from design books. She also pored over ads in such magazines as Southern Accents and Architectural Digest to find just the right chandeliers.