Turning a rowhouse into a beach house


Hampden: When the Smiths' guests see things like the papier-mache clamshell filling the fireplace, they say, "This wasn't what I was expecting.

April 18, 1999|By Rachel Brown | Rachel Brown,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The bright turquoise front door should serve as a hint that this three-story rowhouse is anything but nondescript.

Walk into the Hampden home of Bert and Anthea Smith and it's surprisingly like a beach house.

The rooms are bright and airy, the wooden floors are white, and the walls are painted in warm pastels of adobe pink, pale sea green, and periwinkle. Completing the beach motif are the sea shells and beach stones that grace the mantels and shelves.

"People walk in and say: `This wasn't what I was expecting,' " Anthea said.

The house is full of unexpected but delightful touches. A large papier-mache clamshell fills the living room fireplace, birdhouses and handcrafted miniature log cabins dot the house, and a border of green Anjou pears lines the dining room.

Hint of Southwest

"I had a roll of beautiful French wrapping paper filled with these pears, and one day before a party, I cut them out and rubber-cemented them onto the wall," Bert Smithsaid.

Modern elements, such as track lighting and simple IKEA furniture, fit in well and add to the beach house theme. Homemade clay pottery, deer skulls with antlers, and a rack of cowboy hats lend a hint of the Southwest to the mix.

"I'm an Air Force brat, and my family lived in the Southwest for several posts," Anthea Smith said, adding that she loves that part of the world.

In the kitchen, a 1930s turquoise Hoosier cabinet (a free-standing pantry) is filled with Fiesta ware, the colorful dinnerware from the 1930s. "You could say the Fiesta ware is our color palette -- we match everything in the house to it," Bert said.

The couple stressed that they wanted their 1860s house to be modern and fun rather than try to create a historically correct Victorian look, but it's apparent they love its history.

"This was a textile mill supervisor's house," Anthea said, explaining that the area had been the leading maker of duck cotton, which was used for the sailcloth of clipper ships. "The smaller houses down the hill were built for the mill workers."

At some point, the house was subdivided into three apartments; but the last owner, a corporate contractor, ripped out the dividing walls, restored the staircase and brought everything up to code.

The couple laugh -- and shudder -- as they share their "before" pictures of the house. "Everything was brown," Anthea said. "Brown walls, brown shag carpeting, brown furniture, brown appliances -- we call it the house's brown period -- it was just awful."

Bert recalled the black plastic molding at the baseboards and motel-style trim around many of the doors and closets. The worst offense, however, was the house-wide use of dropped ceiling tiles interspersed with fluorescent lighting. "That was really romantic in the bedroom," Bert said, rolling his eyes.

In the end, the "hunting lodge decor" deterred other would-be buyers and it stayed on the market for months. The Smiths paid $77,000 for it in 1988, realizing that the house needed mostly cosmetic changes.

During the years, the Smiths estimate that they've spent $25,000 on remodeling. Other than some plumbing, electrical and heavy-duty carpentry, the couple are proud that they've done the bulk of the renovations.

"We didn't hire architects and interior decorators to achieve this look," Bert said. "We did this ourselves."

Paint mistake bin

They gladly share their thrifty tips and point out that most of the furniture is from antique and secondhand stores.

"We're big on the mistake paint bin at Home Depot and Hechinger," Anthea said. "You can get some of the best-quality paints there for $2 or $3 a gallon. There's nothing wrong with it -- people just didn't like the color when they got it home."

Anthea added that they were able to work on the house a month before they moved into it, and that the first project was to paint the Formstone exterior gray to make it look more like actual stone and to paint the front porch, which was treated lumber.

Inside, Bert lined several of the rooms with bookshelves and cabinets. "We're definitely book people, so this was a top priority," he said.

Both husband and wife are published authors. Bert, a graphics design professor at the University of Baltimore, wrote "Greetings from Baltimore," and Anthea, a writer and artist, is the author of "Finding the Charm in Charm City."

After the major renovations, they took their time and worked on one room at a time. "Houses evolve as you live in them, and your ideas change," Anthea said.

One of the key factors in design and decorating was the Smiths' growing family of rescued cats.

"It didn't make sense to refinish the wooden floors or invest in expensive furniture with the cats," Anthea said.

Bert seconded that, adding that the house is centered around "books, cats, and artwork."

He said remodeling a house is a rewarding experience.

"We didn't want to buy a big cold development house out in what were once farm fields," he said.

"Living here, we're five minutes from anywhere in Baltimore, and it's been interesting watching this neighborhood grow and prosper."

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