It is not uncommon for Fells Point visitors to stop and marvel at the neighborhood's many historic houses and buildings. Many display plaques at their thresholds noting the original owners and dates of construction in the 18th-century maritime village.
"My dream house started out as a nightmare," Laura Norris said of her now completely restored 1799 home, once the residence of clipper ship builder Thomas Lamdin.
Ironically, Norris can credit a threat to Fells Point for her home's preservation. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, formerly a Fells Point resident, bought the house years ago as part of a neighborhood fight to block a planned superhighway that would have plowed through the historic neighborhood, demolishing streets and alleys unchanged for 200 years. While she didn't live in the house, she refused to sell it. Many other residents also worked to place their homes on the historic register, making them untouchable.
The neighborhood prevailed, the highway plan was abandoned and Mikulski moved on in a political career that ranged from City Council to the U.S. Senate. And Tony and Laura Norris, owners of the well-known Bertha's Mussels on Broadway, bought Mikulski's property in 1976.
"Tony had the vision. I couldn't see it," Laura Norris continued, referring to a house that was completely covered in Formstone. "The interior had 27 rooms rammed in willy-nilly, pokey partitions, toilets here and there, [and] even the carcasses of little rodents!"
The couple paid $20,000 in 1976 for the Thomas Lamdin house. Then they set about gutting the place with the help of their friend, Bob Eney, a local architectural historian.
"Bob and Tony were so excited," Laura Norris recalled. "They kept telling me, `It's everything you've ever dreamed of.' Bob sketched rooms as they could become."
Additionally, all kinds of discoveries were made when walls were ripped out and carpets torn up in the 25-foot-wide main house with two floors and a third-floor garret. Beyond a mud room in the rear of the house was a large kitchen that was a separate structure in the 18th century. Wide-planked flooring was also a welcome surprise.
The Norrises estimate they've spent more than $90,000 over the years to restore the home, with Tony Norris researching every project, especially where "new" moldings and windows were concerned. The cost also included life's necessities, such as new heating and air conditioning.
The total - and beautiful - restoration is evident at the home's green front door. At the top of the door frame, under a transom of tracery and glass, a wooden plaque reads: "Built 1799 by Thos. Lamdin Ship Carpenter."
Inside, a hall with a floor of black and white tiles laid in a diamond pattern extends the length of the original house, ending at a staircase to the second floor. An opening off the hall in the front reveals a comfortable living room painted off-white with heavy wood trim painted a soft yellow shade. A camelback sofa in teal leather and a working fireplace add a Colonial flavor. Built-in bookcases with multipaned glass doors line the back wall on each side of the opening to the dining room.
The dining room, painted soft yellow with white trim, features a large Sheridan-style mahogany table and chairs and a working fireplace with an antique, framed lithograph of George Washington over the mantel.
Past the mud room is the kitchen, with brick floors and the original hearth, again in working condition. The wood cabinets are painted cream and terra cotta, as much of them as possible original to the period.
Except for a few old photographs, Laura Norris has pretty much forgotten her nightmare of a house.
"We are very at peace here," she said.
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Fells Point house tour
The Norris home will be open to the public as part of the 37th annual Historic Harbor House Tour of Fells Point on May 13 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tickets - $15 in advance and $18 the day of the event - are available at the Fells Point Visitors Center, 1732 Thames St.; the Baltimore Visitors Center, 401 Light St.; and Long & Foster Real Estate's Fells Point office, 701 S. Broadway. For more information, call the Preservation Society, 410-675-6750.