Little houses of light high on a city hill


Coldspring: Though the rooms are small, skylights and windows make them light and airy, with views of the Jones Falls valley below.

August 22, 1999|By Rachel Brown | Rachel Brown,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"This is a jewel in the city," said Laura McCall of her four-story deck house in Coldspring New Town styled by Israeli architect Moshe Safdie after Italian hillside townhouses.

McCall bought the house new in 1979 for $45,000 and had hardwood floors -- rather than carpeting -- put in for $2,000. She said she was offered almost double the total for the house in the late 1980s, but she decided not to sell.

Safdie was an architectural genius, McCall said, explaining that he gained worldwide fame for his bubble houses at the Montreal Expo in 1967.

"He wound up partnering with Rouse [Co.], and they built 250 of these deck houses here," she said, adding that the land was originally thought to be unworkable because of its steepness.

McCall said the Coldspring New Town planners had at one time envisioned high-rise apartments and cluster homes, but those projects were never built.

The sunlight that comes into her home is dappled from the trees and shrubs outside her windows, and she enjoys the small back yard. "As my aunt would say: It's small enough to be easy; it's big enough to be interesting."

The same could be said of the house. The rooms are small, but architectural touches such as angled ceilings, skylights and wall slits make them appear large and airy.

Underground garage

The first floor is directly off the underground parking garage and acts as foyer and has two storage rooms; the next floor contains a galley kitchen, dining room and living room; the third floor has the main entrance and a guest bedroom and bath; and the fourth floor holds McCall's study and master suite.

"I love how this little house expands and absorbs all my family belongings," McCall said. "As modern as it is, it took in all this background."

McCall's background is enough to fill a novel, one she might even write herself someday. She was born in New Orleans to a wealthy publishing family. She grew up during the Depression and witnessed its devastating effects on the family.

"My father lost his [advertising] business, the house, all of our money," she said, adding that the fall from grace and social standing was very hard on her and one of the main reasons she eventually left town.

"I was in with the country club set when I couldn't afford to be in the country club."

McCall, who is divorced, raised raised two children -- a girl, Anne, and a boy, Evan -- and moved to Baltimore to teach at the University of Maryland.

On the way toward getting a doctorate in social work, she got sidetracked into combating drug abuse.

"I was with the Addict Referral and Counseling Center in Baltimore for 23 years," she said. "I picked it up when it was being deserted by the city -- I even raised $650,000 to buy the building where it's housed."

Death of a son

Now retired, McCall is proud of her accomplishments and family history, but she harbors a bitter sorrow over the death of her son at age 35. "He died of AIDS and came here for his last year in 1987," she said.

His collection of modern paintings and artwork graces the walls, and her late mother's 1840s flame veneer furniture fills several of the rooms.

The eclectic collection of family possessions all work together, and it's just as well because their histories make them impossible to part with. "This was Daddy's chair," McCall said, pointing to a blue leather chair in the living room. "He used to lie in this chair every Saturday and listen to operas."

Family photos fill many of the walls in the house and bookshelves line nearly every room in the house. "The books from everyone were probably the hardest things to find room for because I have my own collection of books," she said.

McCall's study has foot-high stacks of "to-do piles," and she doesn't apologize for her housekeeping.

"I don't spend my days dusting, that's for sure," she said, laughing. Later, when opening a cabinet caused a mini-avalanche of possessions to gush out, she deadpanned: "This isn't unusual at my house."

During the warm weather, McCall swims every day at the community pool.

"Sometimes it hits me that I'm the last of my forebears," she said. "But that's OK -- I have their memories here with me."

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