How a Baltimore County schoolhouse became a charming family home

For The Baltimore Sun
How an old Baltimore County schoolhouse became a charming family home.

When the oldest of L.A. Brickner and Michael Filipczak's three sons was in middle school, the couple decided that instead of sending them to local public schools, Brickner would home-school.

It was a natural decision for the family. After all, they lived in a schoolhouse.

Their home in Granite, on the western edge of Baltimore County, was built in 1879 with thick walls made from granite mined in nearby quarries. By the time the Brickner-Filipczaks moved there in 1998, the building had served several purposes, evolving from school to shop to family home.

In the 17 years since, Brickner and Filipczak have embraced the building's schoolhouse roots, while making updates that modernize the space and make it appropriate for 21st-century family life. Now they're preparing turn the dwelling over to its next caretakers.

In its original incarnation, the home was known as Baltimore County Schoolhouse No. 3, where children were educated through the 1930s. After a brief stint as a civil defense shelter, the building was purchased by the Torrey family and converted into a home in the 1940s.

The original structure was very simple, without ornamentation; the Torreys added "fussier" architectural details and numerous second-floor dormers, all inspired by Gunston Hall, the Virginia home of 18th-century statesman George Mason. "They copied the banisters, and all of the [moldings come] from this time period," said Brickner.

The Torreys' son lived in the home until the 1990s, when it was purchased by Don and Brenda Hamilton and converted into an antiques store.

"Our first introduction to the home was as an antiques store," said Brickner. "We said, like everyone does, 'This is so cool!' Let us know if you ever want to sell this place.'"

In 1998, a few years after their first visit, Filipczak happened to call Brenda Hamilton, just to check in. He caught her at just the right moment; she and her husband were about to put the building on the market. Brickner and Filipczak didn't waste any time — they drew up a contract to buy the house that evening.

"It was kismet; we were just in the right place at the right time," said Brickner, who laughs now about how little she knew about the home when they purchased it. "I didn't know how many bedrooms or bathrooms it was — I had two 4-year-olds and a 6-year-old — but it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

Fortunately, the Torrey family's 1940s updates were durable. Though the home had only a tiny kitchen, the bathrooms were in good shape, so Brickner, Filipczak and their sons could live in the home for a few years before making any major changes.

Throughout the home, its history as a schoolhouse has been preserved, both in structural details and decor. As a multiroom schoolhouse, the building required numerous doors and many large windows.

"It's great for light," Brickner said, "but difficult for decorating. The whole house is windows and doors."

The home is wide and shallow, with a kitchen and a family room as bookends. In between, a library and a dining room flank its center entry hall. The walls are dotted with stenciled quotes, paintings of past presidents, a portrait of Shakespeare and an old photo of students in front of the original schoolhouse.

Much of the main floor's furniture was found in antiques stores and on eBay, including a large card catalog in the entry hall and an old general store seed counter that functions as an island in the kitchen.

Brickner has also incorporated a globe motif throughout the home, a play on the globe lighting used in old schoolhouses and on classroom globes. In the dining room, a metal-and-crystal globe chandelier lights a massive table made of reclaimed wood.

"I wanted this to be fancy, but I also didn't want to be fussy," Brickner said.

During their time in the home, Brickner and Filipczak have completely replaced the slate roof ("It should be good for another 100 years now," Brickner said with a laugh), revamped the kitchen in 2003 and, in 2012, worked with architect Rob Brennan to modernize the bedrooms and bathrooms without undoing the home's historic charm.

As the chairman of Baltimore County's Landmarks Preservation Commission, Brennan is deeply familiar with many of the area's oldest buildings. He also understands the value of updating those buildings so they can remain in continuous use.

"To see a great old house like that be adapted for use over time is a wonderful thing," he said.

The Brennan-designed renovation reconfigured the home's second floor, which now includes four bedrooms and two baths. The project involved moving a hallway; renovating the existing bathroom; and adding a new master bath, closets with a washer and dryer, and an impressive amount of built-in storage in the master bedroom.

Some of Brennan's favorite details were borne out of necessity, including the master bedroom's built-in cabinet closets, which maximize storage in a room with sloped ceilings, and the useful niches in a bathroom.

Brickner calls Brennan's creative approach to storage space "brilliant," while Brennan gives the family credit for their insights. "It was a real collaboration of designer and owner input," he said. "A story of building in the furniture to maximize the floor space."

Though the home's past as a schoolhouse has lived on with the Brickner-Filipczak family, their time in the home has not been all homework.

"We have pretty great parties," said Brickner, reminiscing about gatherings on the back patio by the backyard and formal Valentine's Day balls held inside.

"When you say 'schoolhouse,' people picture it tiny or with no soul. But it lives incredibly as a house," she said. "It's so unique."

Brickner and Filipczak think of themselves as caretakers, not permanent owners, of the Granite schoolhouse. Now that their children are grown and have moved away, they say it is time for the home to be turned over to a new family. They put the home on the market in mid-August.

"We listed the house on a Tuesday and had two showings on Wednesday, then a great offer that we accepted," Brickner said.

They'll miss the home where they made so many memories, from parties to lessons.

"After 17 years of owning it, I'm still awed by its beauty and I am honored to be a part of its history," Brickner said. "It's a little heartbreaking because it's an amazing house. But someone else's family should enjoy this."

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