How to finish a castle fit for the in-laws


Huge: The Clementonis knew their "castle on a hill" needed work, but they were overwhelmed by the size of the place.

August 01, 1999|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,SUN STAFF

Mario and Donna Clementoni call their Ellicott City home "our castle on the hill" and it's easy to see why: The 9,800-square-foot house has eight bedrooms, 10 bathrooms, 60 interior doors and hundreds of windows.

The house is so big, in fact, that when the Clementonis first toured it they ended up in different parts of the house and had to use the intercom to find each other.

But the impressive numbers are just part of the story here. When the Clementonis moved into their "castle" less than a week after closing in late April, it was more royal wreck than regal dwelling.

The house -- patterned on an award-winning design -- had never been completely finished, and it had been vacant for much of its five-year life. "It was like they had the best design and the best materials -- but they lost the instructions when they put it together," said Clementoni, who has four car-rental franchises and is vice president of a Howard County car dealership. "You could see where they ran out of money."

For the Clementonis, however, the issue wasn't money. It was time.

When they bought the house in late April, and began renovation less than a week later, they had an inflexible deadline of July 1: the day his father and ailing mother would move into the spacious lower floor of "the castle." They were moving from Florida, and the date was cast in stone.

There was much to do and only two months to get it all done.

"We rented the movie `The Money Pit' before we moved in," Mrs. Clementoni recalled. But even that homeowner's horror film didn't prepare them for what lay ahead.

The original builder had run into financial troubles, Clementoni says, and some critical jobs were not done right and others were not done at all.

Improperly installed roof tiles had caused the roof to leak, damaging ceilings. Dozens of windows had been just dropped into the frames, rather than installed and sealed. Light fixtures were missing. There was no molding.

"There was a lot to do on the outside," Clementoni said. Parts of the exterior had never been finished -- wall sections had been left as rough gray concrete. "The landscaping was a pile of weeds in the driveway," he said.

But the Clementonis, who had been married just over a year, had the newlyweds' sense of adventure. They moved a bed and a dresser into a first-floor bedroom and gathered an army of contractors to get the job done on time.

"It was like a war zone," Mrs. Clementoni said. As work progressed, the couple stayed a room or two ahead of the renovation. "We would move the bed and the dresser from room to room to room -- we slept in four of the bedrooms during renovations."

Every morning, even on weekends, the construction trucks would arrive between 6: 30 and 7 a.m. Work in the house went on all day. During the renovation, Clementoni continued to work at his car dealership, while his wife worked at home so she could supervise what was being done, and cope with the inevitable surprises that such renovation brings.

The tall ceilings -- the living room is two stories, with a balcony overlooking it -- required extensive scaffolding.

The water damage, more extensive than they had realized, required repairing and repainting every single wall -- a six-step process called "frosting." The workers spackled, sanded, put on a first coat, spackled, sanded and painted again, transforming miles of walls.

Mrs. Clementoni chose a color called "snickerdoodle" that she'd seen in a decorator house -- a pale, warm shade that changes with the light and furnishings of each room. It was a nerve-racking decision, she says, because of the house's size -- "It took more than 240 gallons of paint to do the job."

Painting was only one part of the renovation. To open up the floor plan, Clementoni had the contractors remove some interior walls. French doors were added between several rooms. There was no crown molding anywhere in the house, and the Clementonis had that installed during the renovations.

"[Mr. Clementoni] had the vision for cutting out walls, the architectural things," his wife said. "I did the little details it was something we did together."

Mrs. Clementoni's "little details" include four theme-decorated bedrooms on the third floor.

There is the "Boardwalk" room," done in nautical blue and white with beach-scene prints, a painted Adirondack chair, even a little Ferris wheel. There is the "Mardi Gras" room, with bright posters from the Big Easy, and furnishings in bright bold colors. The "garden" room, the "serendipity" room -- even the bathrooms have little plaques with humorous titles such as "Toucan" on them.

She drew her inspiration from a stint at a hotel chain where "fantasy suites" were a trademark.

Even her in-laws, Mario "Motts" Clementoni and his wife, Millie, have a theme room -- a foyer into their spacious suite of rooms on the ground floor has been nicknamed "Mario's Miami" in honor of the city they called home until July.

The Clementonis are still in post-renovation phase -- awaiting delivery of furniture, rugs and other purchases for their "castle" -- but they say the frantic two-month rush through renovation was worth it, financially and emotionally.

The $150,000 renovation has brought the house's value to more than $850,000, Clementoni says -- a substantial leap from the $700,000 it cost to build it.

Most important, says Mrs. Clementoni, the house is a big enough home for both families.

His parents are comfortably installed downstairs, but the house has room to spare for her parents, should that become necessary. There will still be bedrooms and bathrooms aplenty for friends and other relatives.

"I really want this house to be more than a house, to be something magical to become the center for the family," she said.

A needlepoint pillow in the Mardi Gras bedroom offers a four-word summary of the Clementonis' journey from house to home, from wreck to regal: "Dreams do come true."

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