Modern Home Hides Behind Federal Facade

March 31, 1991|By Carleton Jones

The impressions are, after all, only skin deep. Federal Hill's rank on rank of carefully cosmetically correct buildings of early 19th century type have overtones of candlelight, fireplaces and "antique" furnishings.

But the south harbor renaissance district is one of the more venturesome areas of recycled shelter in town -- residences often with contemporary styling of almost Parisian chic. There, warehouses have become balconied flats that wouldn't jar one a bit in the landscape of Montmartre.

Some of the same rules apply to Federal Hill's twin in historic luster, the 18th century Fells Point, where facades right out of the old bicentennial movies of the '70s open up to design innovations and surprising spaces, as well as rescues of irreplaceable Colonial era parts and plans.

The spotlight will be on both districts next Sunday in the 20th annual tour of the Society for the Preservation of Fells Point and Federal Hill.

A sample of the continued viability of close-in Baltimore housing that both districts demonstrate is the new home of Lucy Robins, a financial law attorney, and Kevin Larowe, a civil engineer. Both are 38-year-old professionals new to Baltimore who have found exactly what a New York- and California-oriented couple might seek in a home: contemporary styling in a secluded setting.

That's because architect Becky Swanston planned things that way in the mid-1980s when she designed the conversion of a row of warehouses on charming Churchill Street in Federal Hill. The Robins-Larowe home was planned as the architect's own.

The pluses are two one-car garages (almost unheard of this close to the city center), a tiny Parislike garden with an 8-foot wall, a two-story living room with a soaring fireplace, virtual soundproofing, a third-floor mother-in-law suite (now converted into a nursery to house 1-year-old Amy) and plenty of wall space for the couple's artworks and antique finds.

One of the last named hits you when you walk into the home via a hall between the two garages: a Japanese compartment chest.

"When we got it, it was locked and we couldn't figure out how to open it," says Ms. Robins. A friend brought over a set of keys and they worked, thus solving the inscrutable Oriental puzzle. Topping the handsome chest is a statuette reproduction of a Roman lady found in the St. Albans dig in Britain.

"The original was rescued from a scrap heap just before being melted down," Ms. Robins relates.

In furnishing their radiantly light-toned and glass-equipped home 25 E. Churchill St., the couple decided that the furniture had to be modern in feeling but not the currently popular overstuffed pieces. The feeling was that heavy pieces would crowd and sink the 22 feet of airy vertical spaces of the living room and the adjoining dining area.

The alternatives include light-weighted items, glass tops, a teak dining room in blond Danish style, dark-toned leather upholstered chairs of light design and an art deco settee of intriguingly scalloped shape. The light woods used mesh with the oak tile flooring.

A wall of 80 glass bricks separates the square kitchen from the living area. A pass-through opens the kitchen to the dining room. All in all, it is very practically planned, despite the unusual shapes, with lots of storage and "something I'm not used to, a big Lazy Susan in the wall," says Ms. Robins.

Their new home also had to house a humongous framed theateposter -- 8 feet long and 4 feet wide -- from the Broadway revival of the 1920s stage classic "Anything Goes." The stair hall makes room for another biggie, a full-sized quilt done in Lawton, Okla. and dated August 2, 1916, possibly to memorialize a marriage -- one of the couple's antique acquisitions.

The neighborhood is "a friendly street . . . about half the peoplhere are from somewhere else," Ms. Robins says. There are two sets of elegant French doors on the second floor, each leading to a wrought-iron, Iberian-style balcony. "We can see the fireworks from here," says Ms. Robins of the annual New Year's Eve harbor extravaganza.

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