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Dream home

Living on the bay and loving it

Couple builds tranquil, yet stunning, custom retirement cottage on the Chesapeake

By Marie Marciano Gullard, For The Baltimore Sun

12:26 PM EDT, March 21, 2013

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Driving the back roads that hug the periphery of Maryland's shoreline, there is no singular characteristic that defines the homes. The ones that date back to summer-only retreats are usually one-story clapboard structures with the give-away air conditioning unit in a window or two. Some are two-story, farmhouse styles. Many are built with their backs to the Chesapeake Bay or its tributaries.

While many of this style remain, there is a new kind of construction on the block: multistory, year-round homes, with the back of the home boasting sheets of glass in a variety of casements that frame the major attraction: the water.

The dream home of John and Debbie Burk is one such property in Baltimore County. Built to their specifications by Jon Skarda of Shoreline Construction, the house overlooking Hart-Miller Island has been the couple's residence for just three months.

"As a Marylander, I have had a lifetime love affair with the Chesapeake," said John Burk, a 62-year-old minister and pastor of Holy Communion Lutheran Church in Fallston. "I have dreamed of living beside her in the hope that I could write children's stories that teach sensitivity to the bay's ecology, nature [and] lore; stories that will help to create lifetime stewards of the bay."

The Burks' two-story, cottage-style house features an exterior covered in vinyl siding that, unless touched, looks every bit like cedar shake. Rust-colored shutters bookend the white vinyl-trimmed windows, stone accents cover parts of the façade, white columns define the porch, and two second-story gables, along with a green metal sloped roof, add architectural interest.

"We reversed the kitchen and living room; I wanted everything to be open and practical," said Debbie Burk, a 62-year-old teacher at Loch Raven High School.

Attention is nonetheless drawn to a wall of windows, doors and transoms framing a 10-by-20-foot deck in the foreground and a 70-foot pier slicing the calm water and drawing the eye to Hart-Miller Island in the background. This room, with its light coffered ceiling and interior walls painted true blue, allows the white wooden trim at the windows, doors and the marble fireplace to pop like clouds. Above the fireplace is a large, colorful tapestry titled "The Birth of Creation" that the Burks acquired when they traveled to Peru in 2009.

In warm and stunning contrast to the brightness of this large living area are the cherry accents of the kitchen cabinets made by an Amish carpenter in Pennsylvania. Underfoot is baked Italian porcelain flooring in the kitchen and Brazilian hardwood flooring elsewhere.

"The house was designed around the central great room, which serves as living space, kitchen and dining area," noted John Burk. "This area is the nucleus, the heart of the house. Rooms radiate outward from it and can be extensions of this central room or closed off by French doors."

The master suite is on the opposite side of the central room. An intriguing element to the couple's decorative acumen are the colorful Talavera tiles from Mexico adorning their bathroom sinks, backsplashes and on the floor. This small design element harkens to the time when the couple and their three children — now adults — spent summers exploring Mexico.

A highlight of the cottage's second floor, with its three bedrooms, loft and bathroom, is the exercise room.

"I love that I can walk on the treadmill in our upstairs exercise loft and look across to Hart-Miller Island and out on the bay at the sail and speedboats." said Debbie Burk.

It is not difficult for John Burk, who looks forward to writing about his love for the bay, to wax poetic about their shoreline cottage.

"Our dream for building a retirement home has been fulfilled beyond our imaginings," he said. "We face due east and the sunrises are a visual feast of form and hue, like a light show that is part kaleidoscope and part rainbow in oranges, reds, gold, purples, lavenders and whatever other color decides to dance in front of us."

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Making the dream



Dream room: Since the couple were able to work closely with their architect, Jonathan Rivera, who took their ideas and made them a reality, both have their favorite areas of the house, which they say has been blended into "both palace and cottage," with the walls of windows exceeding their expectations. "My study is my favorite room. It is a quiet space where I can read and write," said John Burk. "The massive windows on two walls open up to Hawk Cove and [the] light permeates every nook and cranny." His wife notes that she looks forward to her impending retirement when she can sit at her desk nestled inside the closet in her study and sew the many projects she has been putting off over the years.

Dream collections: The furnishings and collectibles in the Burk home are representative of lives well traveled. "As we look around our home, we are reminded of the many places and experiences we have had in our 33 years together," John Burk said. "We met in Africa when we were Peace Corps volunteers. We were married in Nairobi, Kenya, and on our mantel are the handcarved Kisii Stone candlesticks that were on the altar at Uhuru Highway Lutheran Church in Nairobi when we were married."

Dream fulfilled: "Because we are so far east and out into the bay, we can see a lot more stars than we used to," said John Burk. "We wanted to retire in a place where we were more aware of nature. Our dream has been made real. We feel very grateful to have the privilege of living here."