Dramatic flair transforms old house Showplace: Head of graduate program in theater at TSU put new and used objects to work in decorating her home in the Sabina Mattfeldt neighborhood.

November 05, 1995|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN STAFF

With a modest budget, a creative spirit and a love of consignment shops, Juanita Rockwell has fashioned a tiny showplace out of a 100-year-old house in the Sabina Mattfeldt neighborhood.

When she moved to Baltimore a year and a half ago, she looked for a moderately priced house in the city that would be an easy commute to her work as head of a new graduate program in theater at Towson State University. (She'll be co-directing Towson State's production of "Etta Jenks," opening Nov. 10, with graduate student Gabriel Todd Shanks.)

She ended up in a neighborhood many Baltimoreans don't know exists. Named after Sabina and Mattfeldt avenues, it's hidden in a little valley just off Northern Parkway and Falls Road. Sabina Mattfeldt is a nice, low-key, friendly place, where everyone knows everyone else and life seems curiously unhurried -- in spite of the fact that the Jones Falls Expressway is a stone's throw away.

The unassuming exterior of her house gives little indication of the surprising rooms inside. They are at once theatrical, with something of the look of a stage set, and at the same time appealingly homey.

Ms. Rockwell began her house hunt by looking in Mount Washington and Roland Park, but Sabina Mattfeldt offered the same convenience and history plus smaller houses and lower prices. While she was touring the neighborhood, a homeowner told her that a house on the next block was in the process of being renovated.

The small house was long and narrow, basically one room wide, but the renovated space flowed easily and new windows let in plenty of light. The owner and her soon-to-be neighbor, Steve Scally (he lives across the street), kept and refinished the original pine floors and handsome oak banister, but he ended up redoing or replacing just about everything else.

Ms. Rockwell bought the house while he was still working on it, so she had plenty of say about the finishing touches. It was she, for instance, who decided the door frames should be gilded.

"I don't know why," she says, "But I wanted the door frames to be painted gold. Later a therapist friend told me Jung thought golden doors were a symbol of rebirth."

Symbolism aside, the gilded frames work very well with the color of the walls throughout the house. Ms. Rockwell chose Duron's Sand Dollar, a subtleshade that in certain light looks pale yellow and in others, pale peach. Golden door frames aren't for every house, but their theatricality fits right in here: Stage props from past productions as well as more conventional furniture decorate her house, and a mask collection holds center stage in her living room.

When Ms. Rockwell arrived in Baltimore, she brought only a few odds and ends of furniture with her. She was lucky to have time that first summer to explore the city's antiques and consignment shops.

She decided to start with one significant investment, a beautiful Turkish rug for the living room in shades of teal, rose and deeper red. While the rug isn't an antique, the soft, uneven colors make it look like one.

At the Consignment Collection in Govans she found a '30s sofa made of oak, still with its original upholstery. She decided not to recover the cushions, because their unusual cream and dusty-red pattern went very well with the rug.

She did have to add a few artfully placed pillows to hide some stains. These are kilims, which work well with her Oriental rug. One, an antique, was given to her by the Washington dealer she bought the rug from, but the other two she found at the Big Iguana in Fells Point.

On the wall above the sofa are Juanita Rockwell's masks, which she's been collecting for 20 years. They come from Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico. She's even made a couple of her own.

One of the most striking, of Cinderella's wicked stepsister, is by local mask maker Willy Richardson. "Like the best masks," she says, "it's even more spectacular on." There are three Victorian children's Halloween masks. "All the little boys were Indians," she says, "and all the little girls were geishas."

Besides shopping the local secondhand shops, Juanita Rockwell raided her parents' basement for Art Deco lamps and other forgotten treasures. She suggests keeping an eye out for Deco in thrift and consignment shops because '30s through '50s furniture is still affordable. "If you fall in love with Victorian," she says, "You're out of luck." Deco's curvy lines work well with today's contemporary furniture.

Much of her furniture may be hand-me- downs, but the house as a whole looks rich, colorful and exotic, because Ms. Rockwell uses so many fabrics from different cultures -- from the kilims to the Senegalese mudcloth hanging in the kitchen to the Japanese Children's Day banner above the stairs.

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