Details draw couple to home


Charm: An endorsement from Sykesville's mayor helps history buffs decide to buy Victorian house built in 1892.

November 14, 1999|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

When the Ashmans first saw the century-old Victorian that dominates the skyline in the town of Sykesville, they did not call it a dream home.

"It was more like a nightmare," said Dave Ashman, a 32-year-old electrical engineer. "I said, `Pass.' It was too gloomy and gray."

"It reminded us of Herman Munster's house, especially with the towers at the top," said Beth Ashman, a 30-year-old psychotherapist with a practice in Frederick.

But they lingered in town a bit, had dinner at a Main Street restaurant and chatted with a few residents. The town, which sits along the Patapsco River near the Carroll and Howard county lines, charmed them and they decided to take one more, closer look.

"The second time, we saw beautiful woodwork, stained glass, marble fireplaces, a great porch, a claw-foot tub, 6-inch-thick walls and tenants who could pay the mortgage," said Dave Ashman, referring to an outbuilding that has been converted to two apartments. "They don't build houses like this anymore. This is a solid house and we truly appreciate the craftsmanship."

The home, which dates to 1892, was built by John Norwood, a trainmaster who ran the local railroad station. His home and the station -- now an award-winning restaurant and the centerpiece for Sykesville's downtown revival -- have similar architectural details, including stained glass windows.

Before the couple sold their contemporary home in Frederick, they researched what they humorously call "the nightmare on Norwood Avenue." They spent hours at the Gatehouse Museum, where much of the town archives are stored.

"Both of us are history buffs and we love Victorian homes," Beth Ashman said. "This house is really about turning a page back in time."

The more they learned, the more they wanted the house. Mayor Jonathan S. Herman, who works as a restoration contractor, had lived in the home until about 10 years ago and had improved the electrical and plumbing systems.

Herman called the home a fanciful and beautiful structure. "It is rare to have a Victorian house in such good state with towers and cupolas," he said. "It originally was why I came to Sykesville."

Endorsements like Herman's helped the Ashmans decide to buy. They paid about $250,000 and settled in three months ago.

"Jonathan Herman really did the guts of the house and paved the way for us," Beth Ashman said. "We can focus on the cosmetics."

"We are good at cosmetic work," her husband said. "The heavy work, we will pay to have done."

They are now living in one-third of the home, working on another third and storing furniture in the final third. The areas are all roomy, since the house has about 5,000 square feet of space and once was two, two-story apartments. The Ashmans already have cut several doorways between the former apartments to re-create one large house.

They count at least seven bedrooms and an atrium on the second floor. Little furniture has made it to that level. The carved stairway is circular and too narrow for several pieces of the Ashmans' furniture.

A narrower stairway leads to a third-level tower room, which the couple plans to make into a sitting and reading area. There is one more flight of stairs after that, to a garret, but so far they have not tackled that space.

They didn't plan on remodeling the kitchen right away, but it became a priority when the refrigerator and stove died. Cabinets and flooring are on order and a contractor is lined up, but they have no functional kitchen right now.

The first project this fall was landscaping. Towering trees of all varieties darkened and dampened the house, they said.

"They were so dense, we had no sunlight," Beth Ashman said.

While clearing the property of years of overgrown brush, they unearthed a flatbed truck, an old swing set, the wrought-iron top of the home's tower and some of the original stone steps to the front door. A previous owner had removed the steps to pave a driveway, leaving no access to the front porch from the yard.

"We have an original picture of the steps from the street and the landing," said Dave Ashman. "Much of the steps are still here."

In an outbuilding, they found a walnut-frame sofa, which they are having refinished and reupholstered for their parlor.

They have also refinished most of the existing hardwood flooring and restored several windows. Bay windows with stained glass panes rise for two stories on both sides of the house. They have found several old shutters which they will paint and rehang. A little polishing should restore the original hand-carved latches still on the front door.

"We are focusing on restoration rather than replacing," Dave Ashman said. "We want to keep as much detail as possible."

In the spring, they will have the exterior painted. Instead of gloomy gray, they have chosen "downy moon," a shade she calls a husky yellow. Accents and trim will be white, burgundy and hunter green.

The couple probably have at least two years of restoration ahead of them and have learned to "expect the unexpected," Beth Ashman said.

Both have high praise for the Sykesville Historic District Commission, which has recommended contractors and given them ideas and guidelines. Since the home is in the historic district, all restoration work is eligible for federal and state tax credits.

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