The two-story brick townhouses on the quiet tree-lined street in Academy Heights look very much alike. Front doors are painted different colors, landscaping varies from well-manicured
to run amok, but structural elements of the houses are virtually identical.
Not, it turns out, on the inside. Celia and Rick O'Brien have created their own version, their personal dream home, within one townhouse.
After eight years of tearing down walls, gluing wood and moving drains and vents, their 1,800-square-foot townhouse is spacious and bright.
"We don't have one of those 16,000-square-foot ocean-front homes. We don't have a showroom. We have a nice townhouse that we've made livable and comfortable. And we did it ourselves, affordably. I love it here," Celia O'Brien said.
In 1989, Rick O'Brien bought the 37-year-old house for $80,000 with his brother, who owns a flooring company. The previous owner lived on the first floor and rented out the second floor. Rick O'Brien remembers the house as unkempt and cramped, with little storage space. The brothers grew up renovating their parents' homes and were well-versed in construction and woodworking. And they saw potential in the townhouse.
They began in the unfinished basement by knocking down walls and gluing wood strips on the cement floors. Their goal was to create an illusion of ample space in a 600-square-foot basement. The full bathroom in the basement is the best example of their effort. It's a 7-foot-wide, corridor-sized room that was nothing but awkward when they began.
They covered the shower stall with glass blocks and lined the facing wall with a mirror. Underneath the mirror is a long, white sink built into the wall with open shelves below. There is an arched doorway at the back of the room that leads to the toilet. The deep green paint of the walls reflects off the glass shower and mirror and gives the perception of a room three times its size.
The brothers continued renovating up through the second floor, enlarging closets and creating storage space, such as a cabinet under the stairs, where none had been.
In 1993, Rick and Celia married and moved in. They continued the renovations already begun by the O'Brien brothers, and finished the first and second floors.
The first floor had been four separate rooms: a walled-in front foyer, a living room, dining room and kitchen. Rick O'Brien knocked down three foyer walls and carved a large archway through the last wall to retain the feel of an entrance area.
He tore down the walls between the other rooms, so the living room flows into the dining area which flows into the kitchen. Only the decorating suggests the rooms are separate.
"We entertain a lot and I love that you can be in the kitchen and still hold a conversation with your guests in the living room. It doesn't matter where you are in this house, you can see everything, everything is accessible," Celia O'Brien said.
She painted the second floor in light peach and yellow hues to create an airy atmosphere. "When I moved in, the upstairs was all gray. It was so dingy and depressing. It needed some light," she said.
In keeping with that desire for light, the couple searched for the largest replacement windows they could find. After all, the house is built on a hill overlooking most of Catonsville and faces southeast. Today, thanks to the new large windows, the dining room, kitchen and an upstairs office are drenched in sunlight. With lights in every corner, the brightness barely fades by evening.
The O'Briens estimate they've spent less than $40,000 during eight years of renovation.
"We could have had someone come in and fix things up, but we would never have been able to afford everything we did," Mrs. O'Brien said.
Her husband added: "And if someone else did it, it would never have been exactly what we wanted, it would never have been so personal."
Pub Date: 4/13/97