Tiny house is big in charm Cousins use furniture from several periods

September 13, 1992|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Staff Writer

When John Hawkins and Mark Vervalin came back from a vacation some weeks ago, they found an elderly man on the sidewalk staring at their house in Ridgely's Delight.

The man told them he was looking for a house he'd lived in in the '40s. He thought this was the one.

Mr. Hawkins and Mr. Vervalin, who are cousins, invited him inside for a look around. He emerged shaking his head. It was the right house, but everything about it had changed. It's so different, he said.

To a visitor with no history, other descriptions come to mind first: Beautiful, comfortable, charming, intriguing, surprising -- and tiny.

Barely a dozen feet wide at its widest and four rooms deep at its deepest, the house is indeed small. But Mr. Hawkins and Mr. Vervalin have filled it with an eclectic and intriguing mix of furnishings and objects that give it a look decidedly different from a run-of-the-mill small rowhouse.

"We wanted a formal look on the lower floors," Mr. Vervalin says, "with the exception of the back sun room, which would be comfortable -- it has a more casual look." The bedrooms are somewhat less formal, "with the third-floor bedroom being the most casual of all," Mr. Vervalin says.

"A lot of the furniture we'd had before," he says, "and my cousin already had in his mind how he wanted to decorate it. He knew basically where he was going to put everything; he's very good at that."

"Most of the pieces I've gotten have fit," says Mr. Hawkins, who during the week practices dentistry in Federalsburg on the Eastern Shore. "If you have an eye for proportion, you know you can always turn [one piece of furniture] into something else -- a chest into a sideboard, or whatever."

They had tried "almost every neighborhood in the city" before discovering Ridgely's Delight, Mr. Hawkins says. "It's a nice neighborhood, convenient to downtown and the harbor."

They have a division of labor, Mr. Vervalin says: Mr. Hawkins does the designing and Mr. Vervalin, who works for an interior landscaping firm, does the plants.

The decor is united by a pale color scheme, punched up with touches of red, rose and salmon-pink, and by the cousins' collection of American Empire furniture.

They found the pieces all over, and got some of them for astonishingly low prices. A sofa in the living room (probably made in Baltimore, though purchased on the Eastern Shore) for $250, a chest in the sunroom bought by an aunt in Walton, N.Y., for $55.

Mr. Vervalin laughs about these bargains. "It's going through a lot of shops almost every weekend. One day out of the weekend, it seems, we're going someplace and just looking around, or we know people who say, 'Hey, I've got this, are you interested?' "

"If you go every weekend and hit shop after shop, you're bound to find something," Mr. Hawkins says.

Mr. Vervalin explains that the penchant for searching out appealing old items runs in the family.

"When we were younger, our mothers would take all the children antiquing with them. We were introduced to it at a very early age, and many of my cousins still are very much interested in antiques. We had a lot of good times."

Although the cousins prefer earlier styles, Empire and Deco styles "go with everything," Mr. Hawkins says. There are, however, a few Victorian pieces in the house. There's a comfortable arm chair in the sun room, and two iron hanging lamps, originally oil lamps, that belonged to Mr. Vervalin. One hangs in the kitchen. Despite weighing a ton, as Mr. Vervalin says, it appears airy and light, its filigree pattern looking more like black lace than solid cast iron. The other one, slightly more geometric in design, hangs in an upstairs hallway.

The kitchen, and the sun room behind it, are two areas that were completely redone after the cousins bought the house. They scrubbed the old brick floor in the kitchen with muriatic acid (a task Mr. Vervalin no longer recommends as a do-it-yourself project) and chose cabinets from IKEA. The plain Swedish design blends surprisingly well with the brick floor and Victorian lamp.

The "sun room," originally a shed that housed the refrigerator, has no windows; instead it gets light from three skylights. They are staggered across the ceiling, not lined up, and the effect, Mr. Vervalin says, is that the light changes throughout the day and makes the room a bright and cozy place.

In many instances, the cousins have substituted ingenuity for expense. In what is now their dining room, the previous owner had had a sewing room, papered above the chair rail with a large floral stripe.

Mr. Vervalin says they were tempted to rip the paper down -- "We thought it looked a little feminine" -- but Mr. Hawkins' mother said no: "Just work with it."

So Mr. Hawkins chose a vivid salmon-pink from the flower print and painted everything that wasn't papered that color. It gives the room a rich glow. The table has a glass top that appears to float, making the narrow room seem much wider.

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