When Nancy Valk found her dream house back in 1977 - a four-square design off a quiet, tree-lined street in Baltimore County's Ruxton - her architect husband, Arthur, was dubious about the choice.
"I didn't know what we'd do with it," he remembered. "It was so plain, so unadorned."
What a difference 30 years - and Arthur Valk's skill - has made.
The 1918 cedar shake cottage has changed little from street level. The surprises lie beyond the front door and in a backyard that commands an acre of landscaped beauty.
"We went to work right away with major structural changes," Arthur Valk continued. "What was once 1,900 square feet of living [space] is now 3,250 square feet."
The couple paid $75,000 for the home in 1977, and estimate they have since laid out at least $200,000 for an L-shaped two-story addition, a lap pool, three outdoor decks and landscaped terraces - all designed by Arthur Valk.
Beyond the covered front porch, a sunroom welcomes the morning light. Yellow-painted walls serve as a cheery backdrop for artist Nancy Valk's still lifes of garden vegetables. Beige cotton duck and faux suede furniture are laden with floral pattern throw pillows, while a light pine coffee table holds a vase of flowers and a large bowl of smooth rocks. Red oak flooring is covered here and throughout the home with brightly colored Navaho-design rugs.
The home's dining room has remained intact and boasts a floor-to-ceiling oak corner cabinet, a family heirloom. The matching oak dining table is topped with a variety of ladies' hats - that's right, hats - that Nancy Valk uses in her portrait paintings, both of herself and other models.
What lies beyond the plainness of the original structure is as much a deviation from it as day from night.
"Arthur has made a kitchen that is like a finely designed, gray flannel suit," Nancy Valk said of what the couple considers the home's centerpiece, part of the addition that includes a living room and second-floor master bedroom suite.
Cabinets of bald cypress with teak trim contrast with stainless-steel appliances and dark-gray granite countertops. A radiant heating system lies under the gray glazed tile floor; unglazed gray tiles form a backsplash behind industrial-size sinks.
The kitchen boasts an impressive 6-foot granite table top supported by industrial aluminum legs - another Valk design. Recessed lighting above the cabinets showcases Nancy Valk's collection of porcelain pottery, which she designed and made in her backyard studio, a separate structure at the rear of the yard. Her sculptures and more pottery are also displayed.
Light flows into the comfortably furnished living room through skylights and four floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking a patio. Still lifes hang on the yellow walls. In a corner is an abstract metal sculpture painted a deep red - the work of Arthur Valk.
Several of what the Valks call "seating stations" dominate the living room, the largest of which are light brown leather sofas adorned with animal-print pillows.
A rear deck off the living room is protected by a pergola and features a set of wrought-iron chairs with white and green striped cushions surrounded by potted palms and succulents.
Another deck around the lap pool includes wooden chaise lounges, an umbrella set and an unobstructed view into Nancy Valk's art studio.
The home that Arthur Valk was initially skeptical about has turned into "a dream that makes us happy," he said. "We'll be staying here. No [retirement] home for us!"
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