Finding a studio ignites art career Ex-government worker made a project of restoring firehouse

Dream Home

October 05, 1997|By Judy Reilly | Judy Reilly,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

For Jo Israelson, taking a decaying, vacant firehouse in Carroll County and restoring it has literally been a work of art.

Israelson had a hectic, stressful government job in Washington, but she knew that she wanted to be an artist. And if she wanted to be an artist, then she knew she would have to find a place suitable for contemplation, creativity and work.

"I began putting bids on properties in D.C.," she said. "But they were either too expensive or in unsafe neighborhoods." Then, one night, she had a dream of a firehouse and when she awoke she knew the kind of housing she wanted. But where to find such a place?

Israelson began her search for the firehouse studio by drawing concentric circles on a map around the Washington metropolitan area. She needed to stay within commuting distance to work and friends. Almost every weekend, for six years, she looked for the place she had dreamed about. About the time most people would have given up, she found a firehouse that had been abandoned 30 years earlier, in Union Bridge, in northwest Carroll County.

Discovering the residence was only the first step. She needed to find the owner. She found him living in Baltimore, but he was unwilling to sell. He wanted to convert the building to an auto repair shop, but when the town refused his zoning request, he abandoned the project and let the building fall into disrepair. Israelson continued her search.

One day she got a surprising call from the owner, who decided he needed to sell the firehouse to support his family.

When Israelson got the deed, she went to work right away. She had to consider zoning issues and attend meetings with townspeople to share her vision for the building.

"I met with anybody who was anybody in town," she said.

Then she heard an oral history about the property. Not only was it a firehouse, but it had also been a town hall, jail, store and theater. Israelson wanted to preserve as much of the past in her home as possible. "Most people were so excited that the building was going to be restored," she said.

Then she tackled the renovation. It was a structure without functioning heat and plumbing, and worn out wiring. The upstairs was filled with bird droppings, pigeon nests, dead squirrels and bats. The downstairs garage that had once held fire-fighting equipment and trucks was filled with auto parts.

But she wasn't daunted.

"I did what every woman in my position would have done," Israelson said. "I bought a copy of the 'Reader's Digest Complete Do-It-Yourself Manual' and went to work."

She spent a season's worth of weekends cleaning the place, and enlisted friends with pickup trucks to haul rubbish to the dump. In a single week, they hauled 19 truckloads.

Next, she installed a wood stove in the downstairs studio space so she could sculpt by day and sleep on a mattress on the floor at night. During these weekends, friends supplied meals. She used neighbors' bathrooms.

She insulated the walls and installed drywall. She hired professionals to do the work that needed to meet code. And, in a clever, collaborative relationship with D.C. architect Eric Colbert, she began creating the living space of any artist's dreams.

"My weekends were spent renovating one day, sculpting one day; then I would drive back to D.C. for work again and my other house in Mount Rainier."

Israelson maintained that pace for years. When her government office began cutting staff and offered her a buyout, she jumped at the chance to pursue art full-time. By then, four years of hard work had been invested, and the Firehouse Studio was 3,500 square feet of living and studio space.

What a space it is.

The ground-floor studio has a garage door that allows maneuverability of larger-than-life stone sculptures to art shows and exhibits. Here, the wood stove still holds center stage, with a rocking chair for relaxation.

Israelson's current project for this space is cleaning and painting the original tin ceiling.

A visitor enters the lofty living space through an etched-glass front door, guarded by an oversized chain-saw art dog. Up a flight of stairs, light streams into all the rooms through tall, arched windows.

Hardwood floors gleam, and art is everywhere -- from the painting of the firehouse that hangs in her bedroom to sculptures, photographs, miniature twig chairs and pottery by artist friends.

Flea market finds -- Victorian-style furniture, orange crates used as a coffee table-bookcase -- and two pieces left from her family's residence in Maine dot the rooms with comfort, practicality and whimsy.

Even the walls and floors are art. Israelson sponged kitchen walls in a color to match her collection of Fire King dinnerware, displayed in glass-front cabinet doors.

She traveled to Vermont to find the slate for her kitchen floor -- then cut and laid it herself.

A gallery space, bedroom, bathroom, laundry area and living room occupy one floor. The galley kitchen is elevated by a few steps, and another work/sleeping loft is up yet another flight.

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