They loved it the rest is history

Overhaul: The Plitts spent 20 years renovating what was a vacant, rundown Victorian house. After 20 more years, it's still their dream home.

September 27, 1998|By Rachel Brown | Rachel Brown,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Love makes you do crazy, unpredictable things. Love may explain why Herbert and Dolores Plitt bought an old, vacant house in the center of Relay more than 40 years ago.

"We'd already bought 3 acres out in Howard County and planned to build a house there," she said. "But when Herbert saw the house, he just had to have it."

Herbert said he drove past the house every day and didn't really notice it. "But one day, someone trimmed the overgrown hedges and put up a 'For Sale' sign," he said.

That was enough to get the couple's attention even though they realized that the house in southwestern Baltimore County needed much more than simple yardwork. "The windows were broken, and birds and bees had come in and made nests and hives," he said, adding that the woodwork in the house was blackened with multiple layers of varnish.

For all its faults, the young couple with two children saw the house's potential.

"The basic layout and architecture was what grabbed us," Herbert said.

The home's layout is spacious and practical. The seven-bedroom, three-bathroom Victorian has an eat-in kitchen, a formal dining room and a cozy library. There are six fireplaces, many of which are set off with slate mantels painted to resemble black marble. Upstairs, the master bedroom has its own sitting room, which Dolores used as a nursery over the years.

"Two months after we moved in, I was pregnant, and every two years after that, there was a new baby," she said.

The family grew to seven children, and it's now a source of pride and joy that all seven children (now married with families of their own) live nearby, with five of them right in Relay.

But at the time of their purchase, friends and family were not impressed with the house, and Dolores' mother hoped their mortgage would not be approved.

"One of my aunts told me that it would take 10 years to fix this

house up," Dolores said, remembering that the remark hurt her feelings. "Now, I see what an optimist she was."

She chuckled at the memory and said it took nearly 20 years to get the house into shape.

They did most of the repair and renovation themselves, explaining that they had more time than money. Herbert, a civil engineer, stripped and restored the woodwork, as well as made the library shelves, the built-in china cabinet in the dining room. He even crafted the mahogany grandfather clock that stands in the entrance hall.

Several features of the house bear testament that the former occupants had servants. A butler's pantry sits off the kitchen, and there is a rear servants' stairway. There also was a buzzer in the dining room that, when pressed, rang a bell back in the kitchen.

"My wife made me take that out," Herbert said, laughing and hinting that he would have enjoyed using the buzzer during meals. "It was in the perfect location, near my right foot at the head of the table."

He also explained how the 1870s house was well-equipped for its time. "There were gas lamps throughout the house," he said.

"It was someone's job every day or couple of days to go out to the well house and pump the water up to a huge tank in the attic, and gravity then carried the water down to the sinks and plumbing."

Certain that the former residents had been wealthy, Herbert often told his family that he'd find hidden money or jewels as he worked on the house.

"One day Herbert had been working up in the attic, and he came downstairs with an old box tied up with string," his wife said. "He'd found it on top of an old cedar closet, and he was sure this was it."

After gathering the family around, he cut away the string and opened the box. Inside was green-dyed sawdust, the stuff used for grass in train gardens. They still laugh about this letdown.

The couple say they've poured thousands of dollars into its repair and upkeep.

"A couple of years ago when we had the porch roof repaired and the whole house painted on the exterior, it cost more than what we paid for the house," Herbert said, explaining that the house cost $14,500 in 1957.

The exterior paint job in pale yellow and shades of green for the shutters and porch gives the house a Cape May, N.J., look. Inside, Delores aimed for a Williamsburg color scheme, with the dining room in a warm red and the library in a soft, smoky blue. The elegant living room has pale-green shimmering wallpaper and boasts a rosewood Knabe piano.

A beautiful stained glass window halfway up the main stairway is original to the house, and the Plitts have added some colorful touches of their own.

The upstairs sitting room is wallpapered with old-fashioned Chinese scenes, and a screen embossed with mother of pearl is in the living room.

The kitchen is the most recently renovated room, with the addition of a bay window and a work island with a sink and cabinet space.

At holidays and family get-togethers, the seven Plitt children return to the homestead, and more than a dozen grandchildren have the run of the house. "They love to play hide-and-go-seek here," Herbert said.

The Plitts also share their home with the community. They have been host to seven of Relay's annual teas, as well as to Girl Scout troops and political gatherings.

"This is," Delores said, "the perfect house for a party."

Pub Date: 9/27/98

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