Canvas for a set designer


A retired theater craftsman and his wife turn their creative talents loose on their house

October 19, 2007|By Marie Gullard | Marie Gullard,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

What would a lighting designer, director and master craftsman of the stage do when he retires? In the case of William T. Brown, longtime chairman of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County's theater department, he keeps right on designing, crafting and building.

In fact, when Brown, 78, and his wife, Fran, were building a new house in the Howard County community of Autumn Manor 17 years ago, he requested an immediate change. He asked that the builders reorient the house on its corner lot to face what would have been the side street because he liked its name better.

"Also, having the house turned around gave us more space on the left and right," he said.

The house, a 4,300-square-foot brick Colonial with beige vinyl siding, sits on a bank impressively raised from street level on a quarter-acre of property in the quiet Ellicott City neighborhood.

It cost $362,000 to build, and since then the Browns have spent another $100,000 on additions that include an enclosed deck and a three-story wing that includes a sunroom, a second-floor sitting room and a partially below-grade hobby room.

"There's not a room in the house that does not have my touch," Brown said.

His touch begins in the two-story entrance, where the oak floor bears a multitone laminate overlay, about 4 feet in diameter, of an 18-point star similar to a compass rose. The first level includes a living room, dining room, kitchen, enclosed porch, great room, library and sun room.

"Fran is the artist, and designer [here]," Brown said of his 70-year-old wife, a reading specialist for the Montgomery County school system.

The rooms are decorated primarily in shades of beige. There's light carpeting, glass-top tables and traditional furniture covered is a variety of textiles, from silk to canvas.

Brown added distinctive details, such as a 6-foot-high arch over the great room's fireplace mantel that is consistent with the Palladian windows flanking it. Inside the arch, the couple has hung a brass peacock that appears to reign over the great room and oak catwalk that connects the east and west wings of the second floor. There, a master suite is supplemented by three additional bedrooms that come in handy for visits from the couple's five children and their families.

Clock bells, gongs and cuckoos sound continuous testimony to Brown's hobby of building clocks. One of them, an 81-inch-tall oak grandfather clock, was built 22 years ago.

Brown, who designed and built hundreds of stage sets, including a huge medieval troupe wagon for his Shakespeare on Wheels traveling productions in the 1980s, now uses his workroom to execute marvelous, intricate miniatures - all of which function as clocks.

In the hallway, for example, is a 2-foot-tall clock that is a model of the Rialto Bridge in Venice, with a tiny gondola serving as the pendulum. Brown's "Apostles' Clock" in the corner of the formal living room is an intricately carved Gothic-style cathedral about 3 feet tall. With lighted windows, it has the apostles rotating on a platform inside and outside the structure.

A longtime lover of model trains, Brown has a train room in the basement. The 16-by-30-foot space consists of three large elevated platforms with walkways between them. Here, Brown has created cities with European and American motifs, industrial scenes and farmland, all connected by roads and tracks for his N-scale trains.

In a home whose contents seem impossible to move anywhere else, Brown happily remarks of his and his wife's life: "We're very happy here. We built this place together."

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