Space In The City

Clever interior design can make the most of Baltimore's small and skinny old houses

December 23, 2007|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,Sun reporter

The house seems like a dark tunnel? One closet in the entire structure? Boxy little rooms lacking electrical outlets?

Many homeowners face such issues as they try to renovate older residences for contemporary needs. And Baltimore poses particular challenges: aging housing stock, skinny-mini rowhouses, single-family houses with small compartments.

While many homeowners want the conveniences of being in or close to the city, they find that the houses in those locations were built for lifestyles suited to previous generations of workers -- generations with smaller wardrobes, less electricity demands and fewer middle-class comforts.

But it's possible to adapt older city structures without gutting them to suit modern life. Designers, architects and others who specialize in space planning maintain that flexibility and an open mind are essential to making old places work.

Furniture size, lighting, color and turning potential drawbacks into assets are key.

Working creatively with the architectural design of their house helped Leigh and Mike Farrell.

When Leigh Farrell looked at a 1951 cottage in West Towson, all she could think was that the space seemed underscaled for the men in her life: Both her son and husband are about 6 1/2 feet tall. Leslie Tunney, an interior designer and space planner, told her the size was perfect and tinkering would adjust the space to fit the family.

The Farrells wanted both their teenage son and daughter to have privacy, the family wanted a den where anyone could relax, and the couple were thinking ahead to a time when both children would be out of the house.

"We have to be solutions people. Every space in the house has to have function," Tunney said.

Two tiny rooms on the main floor were combined into a master bedroom with greater closet space.

The kitchen was modernized and brightened by putting a farm-style door with eight glass panes where a tiny window was. Tunney "stole" the one-car garage for a den, eliminating a bookcase by the fireplace in the living room and opening the wall for an entryway to the room.

"She had us put a three-panel glass window on the side of house," Leigh Farrell said, bringing natural light to the room. She did not want to change the exterior look by eliminating the garage door, so the door was sealed shut. Roman shades attached inside to the door near the ceiling cover the door's windows from street view or can be opened to let in sunshine.

Tunney hung a favorite flower picture that belonged to Farrell's late mother above the fireplace and pulled the hues from it for color themes to visually unify the house in a bright cottage style. White wallpaper with pinstripes of red and blue are the backdrop for red accents. Visually, they unite the rooms and add height. When the children move out, the couple can close the upstairs and live entirely on the main floor.

"I love our home. It flows nicely," Leigh Farrell said.

Converting old spaces

In buying a 100-year-old Roland Park house, Denise and Mark Knobloch decided to devote half of the four-room third story to their pre-teen daughters -- much the way finished basements are typically the children's purview. They're turning the third story into a library-like homework center, a rec room, a yoga room and a guest room, Denise Knobloch said.

"I like to work with the things that are old and make the space work for us," she said.

Sometimes that means changing the use of old spaces to fit new needs. Automobiles didn't exist when many Baltimore homes were built, so finding a place to park them can be a challenge. Bob Wood Jr., owner of Wood Builders Collaborative in Woodstock, says he is renovating a home on Baltimore Street and converting the tiny backyard into a parking pad.

To compensate for the loss of outdoor living space, he's topping the house with a rooftop deck. City rooftops offer a panorama of Baltimore's architecture, neighborhoods, the Inner Harbor and the working port. They add a seasonal room away from the bustle of the streets.

Furniture that fits

Finding the right furniture can be another challenge in many old Baltimore homes, where front-door clearance can be a narrow 27 inches.

"I have had customers come in who moved their furniture all the way across the country, and it's sitting outside on the sidewalk because they can't get it inside," said Karen Graveline, who opened the store Home on the Harbor in 2003 as a response to too-big furniture.

And though furniture of the same vintage as the house tends to make it through the doorway, Victorian pieces aren't everyone's taste. It comes down to scale, Graveline said.

"Filling your house with a lot of little things is going to make it look little and cluttered. Finding one nice substantial piece is going to help balance things, but it still has to be the right scale," she said.

When John Andersson of Coppermine Terrace Interiors sought furniture for a client in a Bolton Hill rowhouse, he found wardrobes and armoires that came disassembled.

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