A marriage of skills leads to renovation Bonding: Her talent for decoration, his for structure bring 1905 Victorian house to life. Now, they'll get married.

Dream home

September 13, 1998|By Bob Graham | Bob Graham,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When Sheldon Stroh and Donna Russell bought a five-bedroom Victorian in Forest Hill three years ago, Russell made a simple ultimatum: She wouldn't marry Stroh until the daunting restoration project on the 93-year-old clapboard house was finished.

Today, to celebrate the completion of the project, the couple will marry at a nearby golf course and hold a reception at their Rocks Road home for about 50 guests.

"This is a dream come true for the two of us," said Russell, who met Stroh through a newspaper personal ad four years ago.

The couple has five children by previous marriages, including two 15-year-olds who live in the house.

Russell, a substitute teacher at C. Milton Wright High School near Bel Air, and Stroh, a home inspector and electrician, spent the better part of two years going through the many highs and lows of a home-improvement project.

House cost $167,000

"We never really fought about anything," Russell said, noting that she had the eye for decorating the house, and he had the structural vision.

They fell in love with the house after looking it over from the driveway late one night in spring 1995. In three visits, they were able to see past the dark wood paneling covering many of the original plaster walls, past the rooms that had a distinctive 1970s feel and past the problems that had come with age. Paying $167,000 in July 1995, the couple knew they had a lot of work to do.

"It was dark, dirty and neglected, but my impression was that this needs a lot of love, and nobody had taken the time to properly care for it," Russell recalled.

She loved the wraparound porch, but in her mind she struggled with how they could replicate the style of Victorian homes in Cape May, N.J.

Stroh had answers.

Old floor plans

"He could go in a room, see what was there, figure out what to make of it and explain it to me," Russell said.

His experience as an architect, engineer, plumber, heating and air conditioning repairman and electrician were great assets as they worked to restore the house to its condition in 1905, the year the house first appeared on tax records.

Working from old floor plans, the restoration effort was a marriage of its own, bonding the couple's personal tastes with a heavy dose of historical authenticity and functionality that modern conveniences provide. Air conditioning has been installed, along with improved wiring and plumbing.

Media room

That marriage of old and new is best demonstrated in what used to be the casual parlor or family room. Now, it's a media room, with a turquoise floor-to-ceiling cabinet holding 1,300 record albums from the 1950s to the 1990s, and hundreds of compact discs and cassette tapes.

The cabinet also boasts an impressive surround sound system, designed by Stroh. The room also features a gas stove where a fireplace had been.

Finishing out the room are the salmon-colored walls. The walls and the turquoise cabinet match a color scheme Stroh first saw in pictures of the library of author Mark Twain.

"I loved that combination and wanted to bring it into here," Stroh said.

The rest of the decorating was handled by Russell, who used a wide array of colors, including reds, pinks, golds, blues, the salmon and turquoise. The colors are linked from room to room on the first floor and the stairway leading from the front of the house to the second floor with a brown rug featuring flecks of all of the colors.

The colors of the rooms accentuate the couple's collection of antique and replicated furniture, much of it gathered at auctions during the last few years and stored in the half-acre property's large two-car garage during construction.

Meeting the requirements of "interpretive restoration" -- the process of making something as true to its original state as possible -- can be challenging, Stroh said.

Their biggest challenge was getting permission to restore the house's turret to its original height.

Harford County laws prohibit buildings to extend beyond 35 feet. The turret, which probably was removed in the mid-1940s, extended higher than 43 feet, just 18 inches higher than the house's roof.

At first, county officials refused to grant permission for the variance, but when Stroh argued that the turret was part of the historical and architectural character of the home, which fits the criteria for the village residential zoning at the house, county officials relented.

"It took us about two weeks of pushing to get them to agree, but it was worth it," Stroh said.

The couple were able to preserve most of the original plaster walls on the first floor, excluding the kitchen area, and about half on the second floor.

The third floor, which appears to have been used primarily for storage, received the most attention, with most of the flooring and walls requiring substantial renovation.

People stop, look

The couple has become used to another aspect of historical restoration: people stopping to look at the house. Several times a week, motorists inspect the house using the wraparound driveway. What they cannot see from the road is the large pool, the gazebo and the 20-by-30-foot deck.

The three-year process cost Stroh and Russell about $100,000 in furniture and supplies, but they saved almost $10,000 in performing much of the labor.

"When we walked in this house, I knew what the problems were. We had a few problems we hadn't seen but nothing earth-shattering," Stroh said.

"People have to know what they're getting into when they consider a project like this."

Added Russell: "This is the house we're going to grow old in together, and we just love it."

Pub Date: 9/13/98

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