A pair of side-by-side brick townhouses might be two of the most lovingly restored homes in the historic neighborhood of Federal Hill. They sit off a wide, brick-lined street. Separated on the ground level by a sally port (a narrow, open passage way), each has a door painted soft gold, each features third-floor garrets and each has windows cloaked in black shutters.
These are the homes of Dr. John Hawkins, a dentist who practices in Federalsburg, a small town on Maryland's Eastern Shore, where he lives in another home during the week. On weekends, he returns to the city he has loved since he attended dental school at the University of Maryland in the late 1970s. Prior to 2003, he and his cousin, Mark Ver Valin, who continues to live with him, had a place around the corner on William Street.
While strolling past the two homes one day, they saw that one of them was for sale. The previous owner ran it as a bed-and-breakfast. Although not interested in becoming an innkeeper, John Hawkins wanted the home as a historically correct repository for his collection of Colonial furniture and furnishings.
He purchased the home (in very good condition) in 2003. Then two years later, the home next door went on the market. This one, however, possessed an interior that was little more than a shell.
"This one is my magnum opus," said the 53-year-old, sitting in the kitchen of the restored home. "This was a total renovation." And as such, he was able to place an addition on the back that would serve as a breakfast room. But that was not enough. During the renovation, he also connected the two first floors. The resulting open space became the family room, and on either side, a winding staircase climbs to the separate upper two levels.
Now, picture a home with two living rooms, two formal dining rooms, two kitchens, seven bedrooms, nine bathrooms and the family room link. One side is 15 feet wide by 86 feet in length, with an open garden, while its structural mirror image is 15 feet wide by 80 feet in length. Both homes are deeded separately. And both are filled with antiques.
"Ninety percent of the ceramics are period Chinese and English exports," Hawkins pointed out, gently handling a figurine in colorful 18th-century dress.
Indeed, his many collections are so vast and placed in the home so thoughtfully and accurately that in many rooms, it is only the electric lights that belie the Colonial feel. But the home is not a museum and is hardly a "look but don't touch" kind of place.
"There's a lot going on here," he said, pointing out a demi-lune table that was used in the HBO series "John Adams." Each room has a particular historic style and there is little mistake in the authenticity. For example, one of the dining rooms is decorated in Hepplewhite, neo-classical, while the other is Queen Anne.
The home's eight fireplaces are adorned with needlepoint fire screens, copper fixtures on the hearths and English Staffordshire ceramics. Five period grandfather clocks are located throughout the house, which also features an exterior urban garden, a balcony overlooking the city and a rooftop deck.
"I guess you could say we're a bit eccentric," said Ver Valin, a 53-year-old interior landscaper.
Eccentric, probably, but for an admirer of fine textiles, needlework, paintings, glassware, furniture — just about any domestic or decorative piece providing insight into America's past — the home is a dream come true.
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Making the dream
Dream realized: "Thirty years ago when I was here in Baltimore for dental school I saw these houses and admired their "early" look ... they looked like two 100-year-old homes that had always been loved, John Hawkins said. "And we're just continuing that tradition." Mark Ver Valin added. "We are close to downtown and I-95. There is room for family to visit and garden space."
Dream area: We use the family room the most (formerly part of the outdoor garden space between the two houses) to watch television and see the garden and city skyline beyond," Hawkins noted. "It's hard to pick a favorite room, as each one has a different feel and features different types of furniture and collections."
Dream furnishings: "My favorite collections are the porcelains," said Ver Valin. "The most interesting pieces are an 1890s account book of funeral expenses. There are album books with hand-written messages to certain individuals dating from the 1820s to the 1870s. [Other collections include] 19th- and early 20th-century diaries, 18th- and 19th-century glass of all forms and functions, portraits, the inlaid wooden boxes, candlesticks, china, early lanterns and 19th-century quilts." Hawkins added: "Some of my favorite collections are the 18th-century Chinese exports and the early English ceramics."