Tours of old houses can yield many new ideas


April 24, 1993|By Karol V. Menzie and Randy Johnson

If you're working on an old house, make yourself a promise: You will never, ever miss a house tour in a historic neighborhood.

House tours are an excellent way to see how people with exactly the same structural, space and decorating problems you have solved them -- beautifully. And chances are you'd never get into these houses without the tour.

Take along a notebook or clipboard -- you'll never remember everything otherwise. Another useful item is a small retractable tape measure.

It's also nice to have a perfect spring day. The Preservation Society for Fells Point and Federal Hill got just such a day last Sunday for a tour of 12 historic houses in the two harborside neighborhoods.

Both neighborhoods date to the 18th century. The Robert Long TC House (where the Preservation Society is headquartered) was built in 1765. (The house is at 812 S. Ann St. in Fells Point. There are public tours on Thursdays at 10 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m.; or tours by appointment for groups. Call [410] 675-6750 for more information.)

Although most of the surviving houses in the two neighborhoods date to the 19th century, and most are town houses, the dates, styles, layouts, degree of preservation -- and renovations -- vary greatly.

Here are some of the things we recorded:

*Two of the 18th-century houses in Fells Point were careful preservation jobs of rare properties. The most amazing thing about them is how much of the original structures are intact. Most houses in the city get pretty well "remuddled" in less than 100 years, but these two were restorable after more than 200.

One, probably the home of a workman originally, had most of its original wooden siding, trim, plaster walls, window frames and doors. Where these things were missing, the owner had reproduced them.

One clever element that wasn't original (though it certainly looked it) was a small corner cabinet built into the wall of the front room. Although the colors and board-and-batten style construction matched other elements in the house, it was built to conceal plumbing pipes that ran to the second-floor bath.

The other house, a grand dwelling built by a shipbuilder in 1790, also was painstakingly restored to look as if the original owner still inhabited the rooms. The effect was not pristine and polished, but remarkably, romantically, even eerily, historic. Only the owner's much-used kitchen showed a modern touch.

*The newest house on the tour, filled with antiques and collections, has knock-your-socks-off views of the harbor on two sides.

Two elements of modern construction we liked were the energy-efficient fireplaces in the living-dining space and in the master bedroom, and the sets of double raised-panel doors in an angled hallway. Each set was about 30 inches wide; when they were opened, the two 14 5/8 -inch doors took up far less space than a single 30-inch-wide door.

*The spacious interior of the former oil supplier's warehouse, built in 1910 in a style described as "early 20th century commercial," was also largely new, with an open plan, huge skylights, wide steps with pipe railings and exposed original brick walls. In the novel master bath, an interior window opened into the stairwell, bringing light and air to a space that was otherwise enclosed. The dwelling also had a third-story addition that provided a rooftop sitting room with stairs to a large deck.

Several rowhouses achieved the effect most city rehabbers aim for: retaining the old while imaginatively installing the new. Among the touches we liked:

*Color. There were deep green walls and Chinese red walls, yellow walls, faux-finished walls, stenciled walls -- it was a long way from the bland and boring all-white houses that were almost all you saw on such tours a few years ago.

The house with the brightest walls -- terra-cotta sponge-painted in the front room, bright yellow in the kitchen -- also had the brightest decor, with cheerful florals, painted floor cloths, gold stars stenciled around a pink-and-cream bathroom. It was one of the smaller houses on the tour as well, but the colors made it lively, light and open.

*In what was probably our favorite old-new space, the ceiling above a grand dining room had been opened, leaving a gallery walk along one wall on the upper level. Along its length, bookcases held books and collectibles, including the owner's collection of antique tools. While obviously not original -- and much of the house had been meticulously preserved or restored -- the resulting space looked and felt just right.

We're considering copying a number of these ideas in the house we're working on.

Next: Recent books on home improvement.

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