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This old Columbia house

Giving new life to New Town homes

By Lisa Kawata

8:22 PM EDT, September 29, 2011

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They had names like Banner, Roanoke, Revere and Grenoble, traditional-sounding names that belied the avant-garde designs of the early architects of Columbia. Ryland, Ryan, Page, Jett, Techbuilt, Artery, Amberley, Alcan and Lifestyle Homes were just a handful of the dozens of builders that made their mark on Columbia's first villages with the blessing of its chief architect, developer James Rouse. Their contemporary designs embraced efficient, simple design, large, unadorned windows, niche courtyards, decks and vertical wood siding. They had detached carports with slanted roofs.

"An attractive alternative in modern living, a design that matches the spirit of Columbia," stated the sales brochure for the Pacesetter line of single-family homes by MODCOL-Page, a builder that pioneered modular houses in the village of Oakland Mills in 1970. Some won awards and were featured in magazines like Look, Life and Better Homes & Gardens.

Fast-forward 40 years and many of those so-called contemporary houses seem drab and dated on the outside. Columbia's famous -- and sometimes infamous -- housing covenants, which dictate what color you can paint your door, whether you can put up a fence around your property or change your siding, have homeowners and buyers questioning how they can dress up their plain houses while retaining their unpretentious origins.

Courtney Odum-Duncan, a Realtor who specializes in selling the early Columbia homes, says clients often have a negative reaction to the exteriors of such homes. "About 20 percent of buyers love the design, but the rest don’t like it," says Odum-Duncan, who grew up in Columbia and professes to love those early contemporaries.

Her clients make comments such as "I really don't want my friends to drive up to this house," and she confesses that sometimes she has to take them inside "kicking and screaming" so they can appreciate the hardwood floors, open floor plans and bright interiors. Many of the houses, she says, are gorgeous inside, with modern updates that could place the house squarely in the 21st century. Just changing the siding and painting the trim a lighter color can have a huge impact on curb appeal, she says.

Some homeowners have added front porches and demolished the carports. But there's much more that can be done. Here are four houses by three builders, built between 1967 and 1977, that have undergone exterior transformation.

Encounter Row

Built in 1972, this Stevens Forest home by MODCOL-Page has evolved with its owners. Instead of changing addresses, Phil Engelke changed spaces.

"There's probably not an original stick on the outside," says Engelke, a self-employed graphic designer and architectural consultant.

The Pacesetter model's simple construction makes it easy to change. The first project was to convert the carport into an enclosed studio for his wife's weaving looms. Then he attached that studio to the house with a wide foyer and moved the front doors originally on the side of the house, to the front of the house.

The tiny enclosed courtyard became a cozy sunroom with a glass ceiling. An addition on the back of the house, designed to replicate a Japanese schoolroom, served as a meditation studio but now mostly serves as a place to store the treasures the couple has collected from their travels to Japan.

An extended roofline, new casement windows and substituting cedar shake siding for the original brown vertical siding have transformed this house from progressive contemporary to arts and crafts charming. Says Engelke, "For a little contemporary rancher, it's over the top."

Pasture Gate Lane

Built in 1967, this Techbuilt house has had only two owners. The first family, Norman and Nancy Winkler, were vital in establishing village life in Wilde Lake and are also known as the founders of the Candlelight Concert Society. Nancy Winkler also happened to be a sales representative for Techbuilt in Columbia, while Norman was active in the first Columbia Council. Now, owners John Hannay and John Palen have updated the house while still preserving its place in Columbia's beginnings.

When they bought the house in 1998, it was showing its age. From a crumbling driveway to an astronomical utility bill from the inefficient original windows, there was plenty to do. Plus, there was no carport or garage.

"We could see immediately it needed a lot of work but that it had a lot of possibility," says Hannay. In 2002, a carport was added to match the style of nearby homes. The bathrooms needed updating and more storage space was needed as well.

Two years later, with a design from architect/artist Roxanna Sinex, the second floor deck was demolished and a two-story extension was added, using the same style of siding as the original. The difference is that they added a stone exterior at the base to match that of the updated walkway.

When so many older houses were being changed to horizontal siding, why did Hannay and Palen choose to keep the greenish-brown vertical siding? "We thought the look was emblematic of the period and didn't want to dramatically change it," says Hannay.

Hyla Brook Road

Wilde Lake has the distinction of being Columbia's first village, and one of its builders, Techbuilt, made its mark on a little side street called Hyla Brook. Overlooking Wilde Lake, the street is a mix of the 19th-century stone houses once part of Oakland plantation and the futuristic, barrier-free design of prize-winning architect Karl Koch.

"The Techbuilt house is because people like you are tired of living in little Mount Vernons and cave dwellings that ignore the fact we can now bring the outdoors into our way of living without freezing or baking us," the builder's promotional materials read. "It is as flexible as your wildest dreams and greatest needs."

The fact that no interior wall in a Techbuilt house is weight-bearing does indeed make it easy to divide the space as needed -- something that Linda Odum took advantage of when she bought her house in 2000. Her 1971 two-level, tom ranch house with its brown and beige vertical siding had no carport or garage. The siding and windows were in bad shape. When Odum brought her elderly mother from Tennessee to Columbia to live with her, she quickly realized that a garage with wheelchair access to the house was critical for everyone's comfort.

Odum hired architect Bob Moon, who owns a contemporary house in Hobbit's Glen, and the results yielded not only more space but a completely different look to her house. A garage and hallway were added as well as a master bedroom suite behind the garage. The slope of the roof was changed, and gray insulated siding with white trim brightened up the exterior.

"If you can increase the pitch of the roofline, you can get cathedral ceilings," says Odum. "That can be a major difference for the older Columbia houses."

A reconfigured interior now has three separate master suites to allow for comfortable and private quarters. "Then if I wanted to age in place I could have someone living with me," she says, then laughs. "Not that I plan to age."

Cornshock Court

A little goes a long way on this house in Owen Brown.

Built in 1977, this split-level rancher started out as the Revere model by Ryland Homes. It was a plain box with untrimmed windows and the typical T-111 vertical siding used in most early Columbia homes. When Rob Touse bought it in 1988, the house had little curb appeal. Luckily, he owns a home remodeling company and got to work.

"We replaced the windows and siding. They were in bad shape," says Touse. He also added a covered portico at the front entrance and replaced a rotting wood retaining wall with stone.

"A lot of it was for cosmetic reasons," he says of the changes, which give the structure more depth and texture.

An addition on the back of the house gives extra space and alters the roofline.

The changes are so subtle, passersby would be hard pressed to guess the home’s original design unless they looked at other houses on the court.