Making a house worthy of its setting


February 06, 2000|By Rachel Brown | Rachel Brown,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

What would a man who flies the skies as an airline pilot and who once navigated the seas in the merchant marine look for when buying a house? The answer, surprisingly, is land.

Alan De Sa found just that when he bought a two-bedroom brick rancher in St. Denis nine years ago. The house is situated on a 1-acre parcel, but it was the 14,500-acre Patapsco Valley State Park behind the property that satisfied De Sa's desire.

"I saw the park, and that was all I cared about," he said. "I thought the house was OK."

His wife, Doreen, whom he was dating at the time, shared his love for the park, but she thought the house was far from OK.

ka15 "It was so ugly it was awful," she said, recalling the wall-to-wall orange shag carpeting in the foyer. "And most of the rooms had these tiny square windows that you had to stand on tiptoe to see through."

ka0 De Sa paid $85,000 for the house and has since spent almost $300,000 on a three-story addition that includes a wraparound porch. Despite the high cost of renovation, the De Sas couldn't be more pleased with the results, which gave them an additional three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a living room, a play room, a storage room and two fireplaces as well as new windows that allow sweeping views of the woods.

"Look at the half-a-million-dollar homes that are springing up alongside [Interstate] 70; why put such expensive houses on the highway?" Alan asked. "They might be considered custom homes, but they don't have the customization that we have in this house."

Nor do those houses have the history of the De Sas' home.

Their home was built in the mid-1800s by J. J. Helman, a renowned developer, who used the property as the site for a lawn bowling alley that was part of his St. Denis amusement park.

The Civil War brought an end to the festivities, and records from the Baltimore County Historical Society show that Union troops slept at the house.

Original to the house were tongue-and-groove pine flooring and double doors inlaid with stained glass.

Throughout the four-year renovation, the De Sas were careful to match materials and designs of the addition to the old part of the house, so old and new would flow together.

"The porch ties the whole house together," Alan said, pointing out that the wooden railing is carved to match a Victorian pattern. "And it's made out of cedar, which was used quite a bit back then."

Inside, both wooden fireplace mantels came from antique stores, and the French doors in the living room were bought at a store that specializes in old house fixtures. "We didn't want everything to be brand new; we wanted things with character," Doreen said.

The newer additions don't lack for character -- especially the three gargoyles perched on the chimney. "These are little whimsical touches; I wanted people to look at the house and smile," he said.

To complete the octagon porch attachment, Alan located a Vermont company that handcrafted a copper spire, but he credits Doreen with the chimney design. "I came up with this from a chimney on a cigarette ad poster," she said. "The store wouldn't sell me the poster, so I sent the mason down to study it."

Doreen also helped design the two-story stained-glass window, which was made by artisan Charles Barrone and runs the length of the stairs.

"I based the colors and the flower motif from an old stained-glass window we bought in Ellicott City," she said.

Alan used his carpentry skills to inlay a cherry and white-ash compass rose in the floor near the bay window in the dining room. "The directions are true here -- the `N' actually points north," he said, adding that the compass rose was something he remembered from his days as a ship captain.

He also helped carve and install cherry molding along the sunken tub in the master bathroom. "This is from a cherry tree up the road," he said. "It's neat to have things like this in your home."

Original artwork fills the home, but the prized piece is a large watercolor over the mantel in the living room. It was done by Baltimore artist Fritz Schuler Briggs and depicts the nearby historical Thomas Viaduct.

"I like how the grasses here match the shade of the walls," Alan said.

Despite their hands-on work, husband and wife give credit to their contractor, Jeff Harman; carpenter, Paul Macek; and mason, Don Hood.

Alan designed the addition and had his plans drawn up by an architect. But he soon found that it made sense to alter the floor plan. "They worked with us to change things on the fly," he said. "Sometimes it seemed like 1,000 changes a day."

The De Sas originally planned for a hallway to run the length of the master bedroom, but then realized they could have a much larger, quieter room without the hallway. And, once the stained-glass window was installed, they decided to keep the stairwell open rather than enclose it.

With the renovation work nearing completion, it appears that the De Sas have their dream home and the perfect location.

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