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THERE'S NO PLACE LIKE

A house in Little Italy is one couple's 24-room playground

February 15, 2004|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Staff

If Alice in Wonderland hired herself out as an interior designer, with the dormouse as her assistant, she might conceivably come up with something like the house of Holly Tominack and Joe Bienvenu.

For most of us, home is shelter. For Tominack, 33, and Bienvenu, 37, it's their playground -- a playground decorated with checkerboards and stripes, stars and hearts, thrift-store finds and little shrines.

"I'm always finding things in Dumpsters that interest me," says Tominack with a laugh. "I guess I require a lot of stimulation. A lot of color, a lot of things."

The trapeze in the living room is a clue that this isn't like any other rowhouse in Little Italy.

"Sometimes it's good to hang upside down," she explains. "It changes your perspective."

Then there's the ballroom strung with stars and a disco ball, the recording studio, the master bathroom with a Jacuzzi, and the state-of-the-art kitchen -- but no central heating. (Heat is provided in some rooms by wood-pellet-burning stoves.)

The interior doors have swinging cat doors cut into them for Sportva and Charlie, two enormous domestic shorthairs, and Stella Luna, a tuxedo cat.

"A lot of people come in and say, 'Wow, you guys are crazy,' " says Bienvenu, whose day job is as a psychiatrist at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions. "But a lot come in and say, 'This is great.' "

You've heard of the fabulous Little Italy mansion that's for sale for $4.2 million? This is the other Little Italy mansion, a through-the-looking-glass, Magical Mystery Tour version. It's not for sale.

The structure of the house itself, all 10,000 square feet and three stories of it, has a lost-in-a-dream quality -- with the front door on one street and the back door on another one. But the two streets aren't parallel. That means rooms lead into a maze of other, smaller rooms, and none of them has four right angles. You never come out quite where you expected to be.

There are 23 rooms, says Tominack. "Oh, shoot," she corrects herself as she counts. "There's that other little room behind the freight elevator. Twenty-four." But you get the feeling she may have lost a room or two.

Even the city gets confused. The tax bills for their garage, which has a separate street number, were sent to the backdoor address, and the couple never got them. They found out by accident that their garage was up for auction because the bills hadn't been paid.

The garage houses a scooter and two BMW motorcycles: one is a touring bike and the other Tominack's commuting bike. Who says a lady librarian can't ride a motorcycle to work? In this case, to her job at Enoch Pratt Central.

"I was on a grand jury a few years ago," she explains, "and I realized you can die tomorrow. What do you want to do? I asked myself. I wanted to ride a motorcycle."

Bienvenu was against it at first. As a physician, he had worked in emergency rooms and knew how dangerous motorcycles can be. But over time he changed his mind. This month the two are off for a three-week trip to Colorado on the touring bike.

Taming 'monster home'

The couple never meant to buy a house this big. In 1999 they were living in an apartment in Fells Point. They loved the idea of moving to Little Italy, but knew it was a close-knit community.

"You can't buy here unless you know somebody or someone dies and leaves you a house," says Tominack.

The one house they found listed had only recently been converted into a residence -- and it was a work in progress, only three-quarters done. Built in 1895, the structure had been at various times a brewery, a mattress company, an oyster processing plant, a sewing machine warehouse and a Jos. A. Bank factory. Tominack found fabric in the freight elevator "so fragile it dissolved in my fingers." More recently the building had housed the Kohl Lamp Co.

Listed at $600,000, the property was out of their price range and much too much house for two people, but their real estate agent insisted they look at it anyway. The building would need a lot of work before they could move in, and it would be difficult to heat. It was not, in other words, love at first sight. They continued to look at other houses elsewhere in the city.

But here they are. "It was a collision of circumstances," says Bienvenu, which doesn't exactly explain why they ended up buying what he calls "the monster home." They liked the neighborhood. The previous owners cut the price almost in half, and the lure of so much room was too strong to resist.

"I'd lived in apartments so many years," he elaborates. "I dreamed of having space to do whatever I wanted."

The couple don't have to go to the gym to work out because the second-floor great room has, along with a sofa covered in velvet throws, a weight training system, a treadmill, an elliptical trainer, a stationary bike and a silver exercise ball that could be mistaken for a funky piece of art. It looks like a giant ball bearing.

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