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Townhouse is canvas for 'labor of love'

Reservoir Hill artist works to compose perfect setting for family's home

By Marie Marciano Gullard, For The Baltimore Sun

12:05 PM EST, March 7, 2013

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In the beginning, the search for a new home was all about studio space for artist Tendai Johnson, an instructor at Montgomery College.

When his former work space in a large building in Washington's Chinatown was sold and working in his house in the H Street corridor became impossible, he and his family made the move north to Baltimore. Realtor Marci Yankelov of Century 21 found them a three-story stone Victorian townhouse in Baltimore's Reservoir Hill neighborhood. It was love at first sight.

"The spatial layout allowed for us to utilize the first two floors as our living space and the third floor as Tendai's art studio, with painting and drawing rooms and [a] woodwork shop," said his wife, Hoa Tran, a 44-year-old native of Vietnam who works with refugees for the U.S. Department of State.

Not wishing to be outbid on the property, the couple offered $300,000 for the 1907 house with seven fireplaces and approximately 5,000 square feet of living space. The Tran Johnsons, along with their now-5-year-old son, Fadzi Lai Tran Johnson, moved into their new home on Halloween 2011.

While the property would require work, such as the immediate need to replace the roof, the solid build and historical details appealed to the couple's sense of aesthetics and their appreciation of historically significant features. Tendai Johnson, a 47-year-old native of Zimbabwe, was particularly taken with the home's original wood flooring throughout the first level — parquet hardwood in herringbone, basket weave, diamond basket and chevron designs.

With 15-foot ceilings throughout the home, the interior dimensions appear much grander than its actual 27-by-73-foot measurements. The owners have renovation projects in various stages of completion for just about every square foot.

"On the first floor we plan to remove the wall and door at the bottom of the staircase that was added as part of the division of floors into apartments," Tendai Johnson said. "We'll turn the first-floor full bath into a half bath, thereby gaining more kitchen floor space, and build a storage pantry."

In what Hoa Tran calls her husband's "labor of love," Tendai Johnson worked for eight months on the renovation of their son's second-floor bedroom. In doing so, he uncovered layer after layer of the home's 106-year history, such as notes written on the wall, presumably by workmen, and tissue-like strips of old wallpaper.

"I learned to plaster," he said with a laugh. "I felt the need to maintain the integrity of the interior."

In addition to decals on the walls of Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus and Snoopy, he left one with bare brick and, at his son's request, he carpeted the room, the only one in the house that does not have exposed flooring.

The home's master bedroom features such touches as stained-glass doors in front of a pocket window that leads to a balcony. A fireplace is flanked by built-in bookcases that the couple will remove.

"We plan to return the walls to their original configuration and expose one brick wall," said Hoa Tran. "The main bathroom on the second floor will widen to include a stand-alone shower with a claw [foot] tub."

What was at one time a second-floor galley kitchen is now a laundry room, in a far more convenient place than in the home's basement.

The third floor studio is partially completed. A wall and door at the entrance to the third floor was removed. Another wall was brought down to knee-high height to allow more natural light.

"Eventually we will add an exterior platform lift for loading and unloading supplies and works of art through the rear of the house," Tendai Johnson said.

His very large canvasses — mostly studies of people — grace the walls of the home, giving it warmth and personality.

The couple's favorite room is the spacious dining room in the center portion of the main floor. The room features carved wood details in a fireplace mantel and a built-in cabinet with glass backing to reflect the Waterford crystal on its shelves.

"This is the one room where the beautiful wood is not covered in decades of paint," Hoa Tran said.

Hanging over a massive Indonesian teak library table is a Waterford crystal and bronze electric and gas chandelier depicting in sculpted detail the "Three Graces."

In addition to the joy they have found renovating their Victorian lady, the family loves the "Charm City aesthetics" — a down-home feel with a lack of pretense.

"Conversations develop easily wherever we go," Tendai Johnson said. "People are real, grounded and believe in Baltimore."

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