Small `enchanted cottage' lures couple to Catonsville



Susan Skwierczynski's happily ever after sits on a narrow side street in historic Catonsville that is lined with old trees and a mixture of architectural housing styles.

The "enchanted cottage," as she refers to it, is very much a work in progress. Exposed eaves await siding, the new front porch needs paint and a railing, and her muddy front yard begs for seeding.

Still, she addresses the home like an old confidant. "This house was my friend from the moment I saw it," she said of the property she purchased in August 2002.

As Susan Conderino, Skwierczynski, a 53-year-old policy analyst for the federal government, was living with Witold Skwierczynski, a 55-year-old union president at the Social Security Administration. Together, they had purchased a Federal Hill condominium in January 2001.

Soon, however, the lure of old Catonsville beckoned, along with the dream of a quaint house with trees and a backyard for her two active Labrador retrievers.

"I think I got the last good deal in Catonsville," she said of the circa 1952 prefabricated cottage. The 1,600-square-foot home cost $150,000. The half-acre lot adjoins a stream and a wooded area of Catonsville Community Park, ensuring that the land beyond her back fence won't be developed.

But the Skwierczynskis were still in for some nasty surprises: The inside was dark and cold, and she soon discovered that the siding was literally glued to plywood walls.

Witold Skwierczynski remained in the Federal Hill condominium while she and the dogs lived in the cottage, planning renovations. The couple decided it was a good thing having a home in the city and one in the "country."

After their marriage in February, they settled in the Catonsville cottage and began looking at several neighborhood homes in their price range of $400,000, assuming the sale of both properties. But the lure of the little home, the woods, the stream and their neighbors prevailed.

"We decided to renovate our idyllic Catonsville cottage rather than move," said Susan Skwierczynski.

She consulted Jeff Kratz, a general contractor, and hired Plymouth Road Architects for a redesign of the home. The challenges included working around a boxy layout, lack of closet space, dark paneling and a claustrophobic galley kitchen. Lisa Wenrich of Plymouth Road Architects designed a floor plan with an open kitchen, large closets and offices for two of the cottage's three bedrooms.

In August, the couple moved back downtown to the condominium. An initial $75,000 home-equity line of credit allowed them to get started on renovating the Catonsville cottage. After the sale of the condominium in October, they put $75,000 more into the renovations. They then moved into the cottage as the remodeling continued.

Working with their contractor, they chose windows, doors, cabinets, and countertops. The renovation also required new plumbing, wiring, floors, appliances, exterior siding, roof and deck.

There were more unpleasant surprises when the couple discovered that a load-bearing wall had to be rebuilt and that the water and sewer lines from the house to the street had to be replaced.

On a bright, early November Sunday, Susan Skwierczynski was full of enthusiasm as the renovations neared completion.

A center hall runs from the front to the rear of the single-story home, dividing the offices, bedroom and two bathrooms from the living area.

Ivory-colored walls, 9-foot ceilings with recessed lighting and white painted, wooden plantation blinds on every window provide a clean, airy feel.

"Less will be more in this house; that's my style," she said. "The simplicity will be its elegance."

The dining room will soon include a maple farmhouse table, chairs and hutch, which will coordinate with maple cabinets that are treated with a frosted glaze in the adjoining open kitchen. A marbled ceramic floor and Corian countertops in gray, white, and rosy brown enhance the kitchen. A family room has a gas fireplace in red brick, thin-planked oak floor and a door to the back deck.

At last the Skwierczynskis' vision is coming to fruition. "For the first time in my life, I'm settled," she said, standing by her soon-to-be-emptied furniture pod. "My life has taken a calm direction; there is permanence now."

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