Old house's modern interior showcases collection


November 17, 1991|By Linda Lowe Morris

When Ben and Kamila Swanson started house-hunting in Baltimore, they were looking for a contradiction: a new house in an old neighborhood, high-ceilinged spaces with a cozy feel, a contemporary setting for old works of art.

While some contradictions refuse to be resolved, this one was, finally, when the Swansons opened the door of modern town house hidden within a traditional red brick, marble-step exterior on a quiet street of 19th century homes.

"We were having trouble finding a contemporary house and when we found this one, the minute we saw it, we just flipped over it," Mr. Swanson says.

"It's downtown, close to a lot of restaurants and everything. We lived in Madrid and in London and we can't understand why people don't want to live right down in the center of things. This would be prime property in any European city. We couldn't afford this house if it were in a European city."

The house, in fact, was once very affordable. It sold for $1 See to its former owner back in the late '70s when the city was offering dilapidated houses by lottery to urban homesteaders, as they were called, who then signed agreements to fix them up and to live in them within three years.

"This one was gutted floor to ceiling," Mr. Swanson says. "We've got a little picture where a guy was standing down in the basement looking up."

"Clear to the roof. There was nothing, no staircase, nothing," Kamila Swanson adds.

"They took out the floors and put them in at different levels from where they were originally," Mr. Swanson says. "This has got much higher ceilings now."

The high ceilings were one of the things that delighted the Swansons because they were looking for a house that could double as their personal museum and display their various collections.

Mr. Swanson, a dentist who retired from the Air Force in 1983 with the rank of full colonel, has been collecting art and memorabilia related to dentistry for the last 20 years. He and his wife moved to Baltimore in 1987 when he took over as director of the National Museum of Dentistry, which is located on the campus of the University of Maryland at Baltimore.

"One reason we picked this house was it would show off large posters," Mr. Swanson says. "We have a lot of poster art, especially to do with dentistry. We've usually got three or four of them on the walls in here."

In addition to posters, Mr. Swanson's collections include paintings, old whimsical figurines, postcards, an old drill, advertising signs, Japanese woodblock prints, medicine bottles, an old scale, dental instruments, cabinets, small hand mirrors with dental advertising on the back, and ornate lids that covered ceramic toothpaste pots of the Victorian era.

"At first I boycotted," Mrs. Swanson says. "Whenever he started buying those little toothpaste containers I was putting them in the darkest corners hoping he would forget about them. Instead they were growing and growing, and in the end I said, oh, what the heck, we'd better start displaying them."

Mr. Swanson, who has a master's degree in dental history from the Welcome Institute for the History of Medicine in London, also teaches the history of dentistry at the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery, Dental School, University of Maryland. His activities as director of the dental museum include fund-raising to obtain private funds to relocate and expand the museum in the Med-Tech Building at the university. This building housed the dental college, the oldest dental school in the country, from 1904 to 1929.

The Swansons' house has many of the elements of a modern museum: skylights, track lighting, white walls and clean-lined interior architecture. In his reconstruction, the former owner divided the living space into the typical four floors -- three above a basement containing storage and an office -- but gave the house an unusual configuration of rooms.

The master bedroom -- along with a master bath and dressing area -- is on the first floor, hidden from the foyer behind curving walls. A built-in whirlpool bath ensures that its use as a bedroom won't be easily changed.

Rather than restore the traditional Victorian stairway to the house, the former owner replaced it with a large enclosed circular stairway winding through all four levels. The kitchen, dining room and living room are on the second floor. In the living room a large marble fireplace stands out against a wall of windows.

One major change the Swansons made to the house was to add a three-tier deck on the back. Architect William Riggs designed the deck and a patio area below which has a fountain and water garden.

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