A Collector Spans the Globe -- In 1,900 Square Feet

Design: Lobbyist Curt Decker finds room for entertaining and world art in the cozy confines of his Mount Vernon apartment.

January 06, 2002|By Sloane Brown | Sloane Brown,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Who says a bigger home is a better home? Certainly not Baltimorean Curt Decker. He's lived in the same 1,900 square feet of Mount Vernon for 27 years. During that time, he's worked at making every inch count - creating an elegant retreat from his high-powered profession.

"I want people to see that there's another side to me than the aggressive lawyer/lobbyist," Decker says, "and it's all about having a really wonderful home in the heart of the city."

It's also all about two of Decker's great passions - art collecting and entertaining.

Decker, 53, who lobbies for the disabled as executive director of the National Association of Protection & Advocacy Systems Inc., bought the 7,300-square-foot building when he was a cash-strapped legal services lawyer. It was likely built in the 1850s as a single-family home, but was converted to four apartments - one on each floor - in the 1940s. By the '70s, no one wanted to live downtown, so residential real estate there was going at bargain basement prices.

"People told me at the time I was nuts buying it, but there was income property in it [the other three apartments], and the architectural features were a knockout," he says.

Features - just in his second-floor apartment - that include four working fireplaces, ornate brass sconces and an abundance of mahogany paneling and beams. Enter opportunity for Passion No. 1.

"It's hard to say whether the house first drove me to collect, or if I collected to fill the house," Decker muses. "Collecting gives me a certain sense of peace and contentment. My job is stressful and complicated. ... My home is a great refuge."

The embellishments and layout of the rooms - several larger, more open spaces with large doorways leading from one to the other - made Decker believe this was the level originally used for entertaining. Hello, Passion No. 2.

Guests are immediately greeted by shiny crimson walls in a small entrance foyer. Large black and white tiles cover the floor. A Chinese side table, flanked by brass sconces, softens the room.

A small galley lined with cupboards leads to the front parlor - a buttery-hued room with 10-foot-high windows. Walls are painted lemon, with wooden trim the color of caramel. A white marble fireplace centers one wall, with an ornate gilt mirror resting atop the mantel. A modern L-shaped couch - just re-upholstered in a light tan chenille and embellished with tapestry throw pillows - frames half the room. Two 1970s chrome and leather chairs sit across from a glass coffee table. On the walls are elements of Decker's first collection: 1890s French art nouveau posters.

"I got into the posters originally because I needed big things to fill up these [12-foot-high] walls," he laughingly explains.

Traveling and befriending fellow collectors further fueled his collecting urges - the evidence of which fills this and all the rooms. A bunch of 19th century porcelain Chinese altar fruit, for use in Buddhist temples, is arranged on the coffee table. Chinese and Moroccan rugs are scattered on the hardwood floors, as are large neolithic (circa 2500 B.C.) Chinese pots. Small tables on either side of the fireplace and in the back of the room display pre-Columbian South American and Mexican pieces.

"I like primitive art," Decker explains. "I'm fascinated by older cultures that had great aesthetics, that were able to turn out these incredible pieces without [specialized] tools or technology."

The dining room further confirms Decker's love of ancient cultures. An old doorway that used to lead into the galley has been sealed and turned into a display case for pre-Columbian artifacts - including tiny stone figures all dating between 800 and 1200 A.D. A group of "Santos" - 19th century Guatemalan statues of Catholic religious figures - fills one side table. Antique Turkish and Spanish colonial pots are scattered atop an old radiator cover. And almost a dozen South American tribal adornments - made of feathers, beetle wings and boars' teeth - are framed on the walls.

The brick fireplace, the large mirror above it, and raspberry-hued walls help create a comfortable non-museum-like ambience in the room.

"As soon as the room gets dark, it gets rosier and richer," Decker says.

Next up is the living room. It's virtually encased in mahogany, with carved beams criss-crossing the white ceiling. The rich wood forms a built-in hutch on one wall. A mahogany mantel - with another big mirror above - frames a red marble fireplace. Luxurious comfort is created by the combination of new and old. A comfy beige chenille modern couch and two sleek armchairs in deep navy frame a glass coffee table in front of the hearth. Chinese and Russian rugs, collections of Moroccan candlesticks, more Art Nouveau posters, and blue Chinese porcelain pots complete the picture.

These three rooms form the nucleus of Decker's party-giving. Furniture has been kept low in height, and placed in ways to "keep up the flow," Decker says.

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