For couple, a blank canvas


Makeover: These homeowners left only the walls when they revived their rowhouse for maximum space and comfort.

February 20, 2005|By Marie Gullard | Marie Gullard,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When Mike Knoepfle and his fiancee, Laura Van Meter, looked at a two-story rowhouse for sale in South Baltimore, they boldly climbed up onto its old roof. The spectacular harbor view, with sailboats gliding past the Domino Sugar plant toward Chesapeake Bay, sold them on the property. That was in August 2003.

Knoepfle, 33, did what he had done many times before as founder and owner of Building Character by MK Enterprises LLC, a housing rehabilitation business. He purchased the home on Harvey Street for $130,000 and gutted it from basement to roof, until only the brick walls remained. This particular undertaking, however, would be different from the others - the finished product would be his and Van Meter's home.

The narrow and deep dimensions of the home - 11 feet by 60 feet - presented a design challenge.

"Our main thing was to make the house as spacious as possible," he remembers. "A lot of creative engineering [went] into it."

Even though he and his brother, a partner in the business, did all the labor, Knoepfle estimates he spent another $180,000 on the six-month renovation. That included the addition of a third story and rear extension, flooring, walls, appliances, cabinets, new plumbing, heating, air conditioning, two full kitchens and furniture. The home now boasts 2,400 square feet of living space, with three bedrooms and 3 1/2 bathrooms.

As part of the renovation, the brothers raised the floors and exposed the brick walls. Now a small entry foyer features a few steps, flanked by black wrought-iron railings, up to the living room. The same iron railings are used on the staircases to the basement, as well as up to the second level.

Five-inch-wide planks of Brazilian cherry wood cover floors in an open first-level layout. The side walls here retain the original brick all the way back to the kitchen. The living room is a statement in elegant simplicity, featuring a pair of reclining, chenille-covered wing chairs in a muted floral print of sage and burgundy.

Beside the chairs, Knoepfle has placed a fireplace mantel of poplar against the exposed brick. The mantel, a discarded item from a previously renovated house, is in keeping with his theory that, after taking a house apart, "we always like to add the character of the original [period]."

He and Van Meter are longtime collectors of interesting objects from old and abandoned structures. One living room wall, for example, is decorated with a 12-pane window frame flanked by two outhouse doors the couple found in Martha's Vineyard. These pieces have been left in a distressed condition, adding homey charm.

Beyond the living room, a pine dining table and four high-backed chairs have been painted black, and rest upon a wool rug in muted shades of burgundy and olive. Three watercolor prints of New Orleans street scenes hang on the east wall.

A step down brings people into the L-shaped kitchen, where a high bar/counter provides a bit of screening. Maple mocha-stained cabinets coordinate with black granite countertops infused with tan nuggets.

A 20-foot addition in the back serves as Knoepfle's office. Walls here are painted a deep olive shade, while French doors lead to a two-pad parking area.

"Everything was designed for space," says Matt Knoepfle, brother and business partner. "We literally measured the length of Mike's truck and Laura's car to figure out the size of the driveway so everything else could become house. I would live there in two seconds."

A walnut-stained pine staircase descends to the basement and the home office of Laura Van Meter, a 39-year-old attorney. A similar staircase treatment rises to the home's second level. A guest room in the front of the house features a vaulted ceiling sloped to the north and meeting the home's original roofline. Beige wool carpeting throughout this level offers warmth and contrast to the exposed brick walls.

The master bedroom showcases an interesting line of demarcation between brick wall and wallboard, the result of a raised ceiling with natural wood beams, and a large master bathroom addition in the rear.

"This is my favorite floor, the reason we bought this house," Laura Van Meter said as she showed off the third level.

Indeed, the spacious, enclosed rooftop addition is breathtaking, with a cozy den on the south end. Recessed a few feet from the second story, the area features a full kitchen and dining space. A sliding door leads to a 12-by-15-foot deck, complete with wrought-iron furniture, grill and torch lighting.

A spiral staircase leads to a second deck atop the third-floor roof. Called the "crab-pickin' deck," its 12-by-25-foot space features a built-in bar ledge, four barstools and an outdoor shower.

The couple maintains that the joy of ownership lies in the fact that they were able to design and build their personal dream home, with every detail their own work, from the floor joists to the placement of the walls.

"After all of Mike's hard work on homes for others to buy," Laura Van Meter said, "it's now our turn."

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