Ruxton relic is restored gem History: Built in 1853, the home has a rich past, pieces of which were unearthed in its four years of renovation.

Dream Home

July 19, 1998|By Rita Beyer | Rita Beyer,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Living in one of the oldest homes in Ruxton, Cynthia Sothern isn't surprised when passers-by stop and ask if they can look around. But two years ago, when a former resident of the 1853 house knocked at the door, Sothern suddenly found herself on a tour of the house's past.

"I just lost it, because I'm so into thinking about how they used to live back then," Sothern said of her autumn 1996 visit with Charlie Rowe, who grew up in the house during the 1940s.

Rowe's story of the family's gathering in the living room to hold hands during a thunderstorm told her something all her research into prior ownership could not.

"Little tales like that, it just makes the whole place come alive," she said.

In her research of the home's history, Sothern learned the house was originally on a 22-acre estate, and that at one time it was owned by the Riders, for whom Riderwood is named.

And, during four years of restoration, Sothern discovered many pieces of the house's past. Tearing into the walls, she found an 1893 letter from a stockbroker and a child's toy whistle; digging through nine layers of patching in the roof, construction workers came across a candleholder and a bottle of "Xhilirator: Tonic for Females."

"I had a deal with [the workers] that if anyone found anything unusual, that they save it for me," said Sothern, who came home from her job as a construction company secretary and office manager daily to give direct input into the nine months of construction.

However, when Sothern successfully bid $154,000 for the house in a 1993 auction, she had no idea what she would find. "I had never been inside here. I had not a clue," said Sothern, who had only seen the house's exterior, living next door to it for 10 years. "Nobody in the neighborhood liked it because it was so rundown."

When she took title, she found herself the owner of a four-family apartment house, one side sinking into the ground, a partition separating the central staircase from the foyer, and hanging electrical wires in the basement.

"The house had four kitchens, but no [real] kitchens," said Sothern, who put an addition onto the house to make room for a kitchen with modern appliances and two skylights. "I wanted to make it as much as possible like the original, but efficient for the '90s," said Sothern, who also added a deck and a detached garage to the home that now boasts 13 room and 4.5 bathrooms.

She spent time looking at the floors in the house, trying to figure out where the original walls between the rooms had been. "I had to decide what walls come out, what walls stay," she said.

And, she wondered, "What am I going to do with all these kitchens?" She resolved this by converting one to a laundry room, another to the master bathroom, and another to a bar that opens into both the dining room and the foyer, an open area central to the house and featuring a three-story staircase made almost entirely of the original wood.

To one side of the foyer is the living room, with original molding crafted to the walls and one of the home's four fireplaces -- all of which Sothern uses during the winter. "I use every square inch of the place," she said.

A doorway on the opposite side of the foyer leads to the library, accessible to the dining room through a pair of French doors -- another discovery. Sothern found them in the three-story house's unfinished basement.

In 1875, the owners built an addition that now serves as a den which opens onto the side porch. A back staircase leads to the second-floor guest quarters, with a bedroom and bathroom. The master bedroom, with a walk-in closet and adjoining master bathroom, is bathed in the sunlight that floods the house through 43 windows. Because Sothern lives alone with her three cats -- Annie, Samantha and Katie -- few of the rooms are used as bedrooms.

"It's a big house for a single person, but I remember thinking when I moved in, 'I want to have each room have its own single purpose,' " she said.

While one room is a children's bedroom, with antique dolls propped against the pillows, another second-floor room serves as the sewing room. On the third floor, with its sloped ceilings, there is an exercise room and a storage area as well as an office where Sothern runs a company that offers small contractors an office management service.

Most of the restoration is complete, but there still are some things to be done.

"Every year I seem to add something," she said, pointing to the landscaping in the front yard, with a stone walk leading from the front door. And, she built the low stone wall that separates the front lawn from the street herself. "I placed every single stone block," Sothern said.

She has been a stickler for details. "I needed a creative outlet of some sort," said Sothern, who has a certificate in interior design. "The opportunity came up and it was just tailor-made." She estimated that restoration of the 4,500-square-foot house cost $250,000, but said the basic construction cost was around $150,000. After the major construction, "I spent another year puttering around by myself," she said.

Currently, she is having the cistern in the basement converted to a wine cellar. And, with the house's white, hand-hewn wooden siding, and the two-story wraparound porch, she anticipates frequent painting. "I feel as though I'm not necessarily the owner" of the house, she said. "I'm just the current caretaker."

Pub Date: 7/19/98

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