"Carolyn called me at work one day and said, 'I just got a call from somebody at Better Homes and Gardens,' " Robert Hill relates. "I said, 'Are they selling subscriptions?' "
No indeed. Although the couple still can't quite believe it, their Dickeyville house had been "discovered" by one of Better Homes' editors, who thought it a perfect candidate for the shelter magazine's glossy pages.
"I asked first if they had the right house," Carolyn Hill says. "I wasn't being clever. I was really wondering."
The Hills seem quite sincere about all this, but a visitor might wonder what in the world they have to be so modest about. Although their 19th century clapboard and stone house is not large or opulent or furnished with important antiques, it is undeniably a beauty -- as anyone who flips through Better Homes' July issue can clearly see.
The house itself has the unassuming charm characteristic of this antique mill-town neighborhood in northwest Baltimore, and the Hills -- Carolyn, with her love of curves, and Robert, with his
fondness for clean, straight lines -- devised a decorating scheme that emphasizes its attractions. Fetching but not fussy, uncluttered but far from austere, the rooms embrace and relax their visitors.
When the Hills moved to Baltimore from Rochester, N.Y., they first settled in Bolton Hill, in "one of those big four-story Victorians with the rental unit and the whole nine yards," says Mrs. Hill, the assistant director of admissions at Villa Julie College. "It was really too big and too much, especially since we were becoming empty-nesters."
So five years ago Mr. and Mrs. Hill, who have two grown sons, went house-hunting.
Mrs. Hill and her husband, a technical writer for McCormick, were immediately taken with Dickeyville. Not only did the cozy mill houses have tons of nostalgic appeal, but the people offered a small-town friendliness appropriate to their old-fashioned village setting. Dickeyville is still the kind of place that has covered-dish suppers and candlelight caroling parties. There's no small-town homogeneity, though; Dickeyville residents are a diverse group, with plenty of creative people among their number, and a variety of ages and backgrounds. The neighborhood's senior resident, Elizabeth Bragg, will celebrate her 101st birthday next month.
There were a few houses available, but the Hills lost their heart to the one that needed the most work. The owners had been in the midst of an extensive renovation when they were transferred to Seattle, and there was still plenty of work to be done.
But what a house! The "wagon wheel house," so called because of the big spoked wheel embedded in the back wall, was built around 1875, and Dickeyville tradition maintains that it was originally a blacksmith's home. The back yard is ample, sloping down to woods bordering the stream that was once the lifeline of the mill community. Best of all -- for Mr. Hill, at least -- there is a stone carriage house, which had been converted into a family room.
The house got its first renovation in the '30s, when the entire village was purchased at auction by a developer, and the houses were fixed up and sold individually. (Prices ranged from $7,000 ,, to $11,800.) There are still neighborhood residents who bought their houses when they were offered for sale in 1937.
The '80s renovation was watched closely by historic preservationists; Dickeyville has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1972, and alterations to the exterior of a building are strictly controlled. The project included covering the flagstoned front patio to create a sun room linking the house proper with the carriage house. The kitchen was remodeled and expanded, and new central air-conditioning and heating systems were installed. Earlier alterations had created the carriage house's contemporary window seat, which overlooks the garden, and had transformed four tiny upstairs bedrooms into two large bedrooms and a dressing area with full bath.
The Hills completed the work already started, then set about designing their house to their own specifications. This included lightening the place up.
"It's underground, really, with two stories in front and one in the back," Mrs. Hill explains. "So it was very dark, with gray woodwork, and gray walls, the dark floors and a northern exposure." (Although, she admits, the semisubterranean setting keeps the house delightfully cool in the summer, and sheltered as well from cold winter winds.)
White paint and the palest of tints washed the walls with light and visually enlarged the rooms as well.