Appreciating that sunken feeling


Room: A schoolteacher's custom-built loft cottage includes a 4-foot-deep conversation pit and a hearth made of old Baltimore bricks.

January 20, 2002|By Amelia Cleary | Amelia Cleary,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Yellow jackets flew in through the screen windows of her apartment above a meat market in Ellicott City.

A snake crept into the kitchen of her apartment in Highland.

When gas fumes filled her basement apartment in Columbia, her landlord told her it was all in her imagination. These were just a few of the shoddy rentals Nancy Sias lived in while harboring ideas of buying her perfect home.

When she bought a one-bedroom condominium in Columbia, she continued dreaming about her imaginary house. "I did have a plan to build, but I thought it was kind of a fantasy."

Then there was the murder at the convenience store behind her condo. "That's sort of what precipitated my moving," she said.

Today, Sias, who is a schoolteacher in Carroll County, lives in her little dream home, which smells of herbs and cinnamon, with artwork surrounding her.

"I can't get enough aloneness," she said. "Because teaching is so intense, I just long for solitude, and I have it here."

In 1988, she sold her condominium and started looking for property in the mountainous area near Ski Liberty she had once visited with a friend in Pennsylvania.

"I went to the borough office. I made all kinds of lists. Sections. People to call." Eventually, a church group sold her a three-quarter-acre lot for $6,000 next door to Ski Liberty.

Then she found David Lawrence of Valley Crest Builders.

"We worked together really well, and I said, `Let me draw you my fantasy.'"

Lawrence built her a 1,200- square-foot, two-bathroom, two-bedroom loft cottage, with a conversation pit and a massive brick fireplace for $70,000.

Sias had seen a conversation pit, or a sunken room, at a party she went to in San Francisco during her college years. A friend in Columbia also had a house with a pit.

"It's a real '60s thing. Real cozy," Sias said, explaining the fundamental design of a pit. "David thought I meant 1 foot down. I said no, it has to be really deep."

Her pit is about 4 feet deep with a bench built against one wall and wicker furniture along the other. A monumental fireplace in the corner of the room dominates most of the conversation pit.

The fireplace's elevated hearth, made of old Baltimore bricks, lies above the wood storage area that Sias' two dogs, Max and Azzie, have claimed as their beds. "That's why there's no wood," she said.

The mantle is made from the timber of an old barn. "The day I came and saw this fireplace I was so happy." She wanted barn siding above the mantle, so she put an ad in the paper. Someone was tearing down their shed and gave it to her.

Sias was working three jobs at the time, doing commercial art in Columbia, waitressing at a diner in Ellicott City and teaching English and art at Francis Scott Key High School in Carroll County.

"A friend of mine came up to see the house. She said, `Boy, Sias, the universe gave you this house.' And it did. It's like everything fell into place."

Her friend may be right, but Sias' intentions are evident in every room. Her love of color extends beyond the canvases she paints in her loft studio.

A bright-red kitchen sink is the first splash of color. The carpet, wall and ceilings downstairs are all golf-course green. "It's good in the summer because it's cool, and in the winter it looks plant-like," Sias said.

A grasshopper weathervane spins on her roof.

A cupboard table, the last piece of furniture her father made for her before he died in 1996, has a message written underneath. Sometimes, Sias turns it over just to read his words.

She often takes out her binoculars to watch the hundreds of birds that inhabit her property, or to get a closer look at the deer crossing her road.

"I don't take this for granted," she said. "It's like heaven to me. I mean it might as well be a castle in France.

"That's how much I love it."

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