From the back garden of Sandra Seward's rowhouse in Federal Hill, the bustle of downtown Baltimore's Inner Harbor seems miles away instead of a few blocks.
That suits her just fine.
"We bought the house next door so we could take over the garden," Seward said, pointing to an adjacent structure with a second-floor wrought-iron balcony and fence.
While the fronts of the two Warren Avenue homes are attached, further back each narrows by two feet, forming a walkway, or sally port, between them. The design means each house can have side windows. And since they own both, there's a single backyard about 32 feet wide.
Seward and her husband, Dr. Robert Goodman, 48, a veterinarian, rent out the house next door, comfortable in the knowledge that no additions or renovations will compromise their outdoor paradise, designed by landscaper Scott Huot.
In one corner, two raised flagstone ponds are home to large koi fish. Nearby are a statue of the Virgin Mary and a metal sculpture of a whooping crane. The gentle gurgling of two fountains blends with the swooshing of leaves from a willow and a magnolia tree. A raised garden bordered by flagstones bears the soft blooms of a miniature crepe myrtle.
Seward points out a rotund jade plant that is 19 years old - the same number of years Seward and Goodman have been married and lived in the house, which they bought in 1986 for $121,500.
The original three-story house, built in 1840, was extended by a narrower two story-addition in 1880 that doubled its length to 90 feet. The addition also added Victorian touches, including side bay windows on the first and second levels.
The house was in bad shape when the couple bought it, and it needed extensive work, which is still going on. The couple worked at their own pace, renovating the 2,850-square-foot home room by room, as time and money allowed.
"The first year here, we stripped wood, restoring most of it," Seward remembered. "The house has a lot of [wood] detail, and we came across at least six coats of paint."
Goodman estimates that they have spent $250,000 to $300,000 on renovations that include 3 1/2 new bathrooms, central air conditioning, marble tile on the second level, landscaping of the garden and removal of formstone from the front of the house.
The kitchen is still waiting its turn.
"We chose to buy the house next door instead," said Seward.
Its natural pine bead board, which runs halfway up from the floor to the 10-foot-high ceiling, will provide a basis for the updating, along with a built-in, floor-to-ceiling pine hutch with glass cabinets. Pocket wood doors with beveled glass separate the kitchen and dining room.
Victorian in decor, the dining room exudes a richness of color and texture. Against walls painted a soft lemon yellow the warmth of natural wood abounds. Georgia pine flooring, original to the house, produces a monochromatic effect against mahogany French pocket doors, and 6-inch crown molding.
A floor-to-ceiling corner cabinet of ornately carved walnut is a turn-of-the-century copy of a Biedemeier piece. A corner fireplace of marbleized slate is crowned by a mirror of carved brass that dates to 17th-century Spain. Two occasional chairs of mahogany upholstered in green silk damask flank a framed original French poster advertising the 1940s Jean Cocteau film La Belle et la Bete (Beauty and the Beast).
A three-story, open staircase features pine wood with walnut banisters and poplar spindles. Natural light spills from a skylight at the top.
"This house is about wood," Goodman noted with pride. "It's about the warmth of the wood, and the wood grounds it."
The home's front parlor features walls finished in a marbled tangerine color. Seward calls it her "orange room," and particular standouts here are a pair of Chinese throne chairs carved of rosewood, with jade inlay. A large, arched front window casts soft daylight onto a pair of framed, 6-by-4-foot tapestry-like theater backdrops depicting human figures in rural landscapes. Goodman explained that these backdrops were used as scenery in vaudeville acts.
"My dad was a merchant seaman, and he brought things back from all over the world," said Seward, 48, a guidance counselor with Anne Arundel County schools.
The couple's second level includes a guest bedroom with three front windows; it has an antique iron bed painted to simulate bronze. A large bathroom, with white wainscoting, boasts a claw-foot tub and a bidet. A sitting room showcases the home's third granite fireplace and bay windows covered in plantation shutters.
The master bedroom and bath make up the home's third level. Contemporary in decor, its sloping ceiling meets walls painted eggshell white. An entire wall of stainless steel, with cupboards concealed behind it, gives off a soft reflection without the glare of a mirror. The couple feels the master bedroom should be a place of serenity - peaceful, with no distractions. Consequently, there is no clutter and no television. A large plaster angel on a wooden pedestal (a prop from a Center Stage production) looks down onto the bed in other-worldly fashion.
Seated amid the garden's serenity, her two rescue dogs sleeping at her feet, Sandy Seward considers herself very fortunate to be part of the home's journey toward complete renovation.
"I feel we're part of the woodwork," she said.