This old house along Cookie Tour not likely to crumble

December 06, 1992|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Staff Writer

"It's like owning a big antique," says Kar Pittman of the Union Square house he and Jeff Soule have been working on for just over a year.

The house, a three-full-story, end-of-row gem built in 1859, is among two dozen properties on next Sunday's annual Christmas Cookie Tour, a highlight in the neighborhood for six years now.

The house was structurally sound, but "cosmetically a mess," when they bought it. They were attracted by the location, so close to downtown, the history -- H. L. Mencken lived across the park -- and the community spirit of the people. The two had lived in the neighborhood, on another street, for a couple of years before buying this house.

"We just love old houses," Mr. Pittman says. "I was raised around antiques, he was raised around antiques, you develop a sensitivity. Also our backgrounds help."

"As a city planner, I've always worried about cities in general, and how to revitalize them," Mr. Soule says. The house and the neighborhood are "like a textbook example."

Mr. Pittman and Mr. Soule are "very sensitive" about what goes into the house and about what comes out of it. "There are two schools of thought about preservation," says Mr. Soule, who is originally from upstate New York and now commutes to Harrisburg, Pa., where he is director of a legislative agency. "One is not to re-create everything -- not to make it look like it was originally -- but not to take anything out, either. The house will never be more historic than it is now, so anything you take out diminishes it. But the other idea is like Williamsburg [Va.]," where everything is reproduced to look exactly as it did in the past.

They subscribe to the former school, though they are restoring as much of the original fabric of the house as still exists. The ornate coal-burning "parlor" stoves in the living room and dining room fireplaces are original (though not as old as the house; they date to about 1890).

"We use a lot of artists and craftspeople from the neighborhood," Mr. Pittman says. Hugh Bennett, of Infinite Hues, helped restore the parlor mantel, stripping all the paint off and remarbleizing. The stove was also restored.

"It works," Mr. Soule says, "but we don't use it very often. Burning coal tends to be rather messy."

The stove in the dining room is undergoing similar reconstruction. Mr. Soule and Mr. Pittman were lucky in having so many of the original and historic elements of the house to work with. Mr. Pittman speculates that the house underwent "modernization" sometime between 1890 and 1910. At that time, the original heart pine floors in the parlor and dining room were covered with inlaid oak, a textured wallpaper called Lincrusta was installed in the front stairwell, and the original ceilings and cove moldings were replaced with tin. The floors are still there, the tin is still there, throughout the first two floors of the house, and so is the fragile Lincrusta.

Mr. Pittman painstakingly rebuilt all the rim-style locks, which are attached to the side of the door rather than the edge, stripping, repainting and replacing them.

"Each one of those takes about six hours," Mr. Soule marvels.

"I would say six to eight -- well, it takes a while," Mr. Pittman says.

"It depends on whether he remembers how it goes back together again," Mr. Soule says, laughing.

"Each lock is different, I really don't know why," Mr. Pittman says.

Mr. Pittman, a North Carolina native who studied at the Maryland Institute, is now art director for Landscape Architecture, the magazine of the American Society of Landscape Architects in Washington. He is also responsible for the glazed and stenciled walls in the dining room.

Mr. Pittman and Mr. Soule collect arts and crafts pottery and have pieces of arts and crafts furniture, including an original L. & J. G. Stickley rocker, circa 1910, in the upstairs library, that Mr. Pittman found on the Eastern Shore, and an umbrella stand in the front hallway that's a Gustav Stickley piece. But the small sideboard in the dining room, probably English and distinguished by its "McMurdo feet" and stained-glass insets in the glass doors, inspired the stencil.

In "true arts and crafts tradition," Mr. Pittman designed the stencil and painted it himself -- "There are 100 images up there," says Mr. Soule, who counted them. But in true late-20th-century fashion, he drew the pattern on a Macintosh computer.

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