Tucked away on a quiet street in Fells Point stands a collection of ivy-covered rowhouse that have been merged over the years to become a sanctuary for married couple Vincent Peranio and Dolores Deluxe.
Deluxe, 67, and Peranio, 70, bought the first of the four rowhouses, which date to the 1830s, over 40 years ago. Each time an adjoining home went up for sale, they would buy it, afraid it might be torn down.
"We weren't gentrified back then," Deluxe said of saving the properties around them.
Behind their home is a lush garden that looks like it belongs to an Italian villa. The couple converted each back lot into a combined garden space with beautiful flowers and interesting objects they collected throughout the years.
Peranio pointed out the Italian influences reflected throughout the garden and their home. The couple got a lot of their ideas from visiting gardens while vacationing Italy and other European destinations.
"My father was Italian," he said. "I've always enjoyed that heritage."
Peranio is a retired production designer who worked on movies with director John Waters. Props from those movies can be found in and around the garden and throughout the house. The birdcage that belonged to the Aunt Ida character in Waters' movie "Female Trouble" has a special place outside.
Deluxe and Peranio enjoy entertaining and have hosted New Year's Eve and themed costumed parties. Their regular Sunday afternoon gatherings once drew celebrities such as Waters, Johnny Depp and Ricki Lake.
A popular space for that entertaining is an Italian-style loggia, a pillared, open-sided porch with a long wrought-iron table and chairs. A tiered chandelier is centered over the table, while a stone fireplace gives the area an Old World feel.
"We wanted a porch with shade, and this works," Deluxe said.
A large reproduction print of Thomas Eakins' 1889 painting of a doctor performing an operation for medical students takes up most of the wall.
Peranio, a graduate of Maryland Institute College of Art, smiles when asked about the Eakin painting and says he has always liked art and science.
"In high school, I loved science," he said.
French doors lead from the loggia to a downstairs summer bedroom, which continues the Italian theme. The wall behind the bed was painted by Peranio and is modeled after art found in the ruins of Herculaneum.
Deluxe was a costume designer who also worked on Waters' movies, and her creative flair can be found throughout the garden.
"Gardening is our hobby," she said.
When they first bought their house, the couple said, they didn't have any money, so many of the plants were ferns and plants they dug up in the country. A favorite is a white hydrangea that came from Deluxe's grandmother's garden.
"Many of the plants came from my parents and out in the wild." Deluxe said.
A healthy decades-old wisteria used to be in her mother's garden. Given to them because it had never bloomed, it took seven years to coax blossoms from it.
In between working on television and movie sets, the couple would work on turning the neglected spaces behind the adjacent homes into a garden. Where the loggia is now, there used to be a rusted scrap metal fence with bolts.
The bricks used for a walking path and patio were rescued from torn-down houses in the neighborhood that also date to the mid-1800s.
Deluxe and Peranio display bowls containing shards of crockery, some going back to Colonial times, that they found while digging up their garden. They also found old marbles and other items.
"It was like an archeological dig," said Peranio with a laugh.
What surprised them was how their plants thrived.
"The garden has always fascinated us," he said. "I guess the dirt underneath was just waiting for something to be planted."
The couple enjoys the garden year-round and has seen it evolve through the years.
"When we first moved here there was only a fig tree — growing through the concrete" Peranio said.
The garden started out bright and sunny, then after planting dogwood, fig and weeping cherry trees, it became a shade garden. A neighbor recently cut down some trees in his property, and it's sunny once again, Peranio said.
In their efforts to help preserve Fells Point, the couple have been opening their home the last 20 years for the Society for the Preservation of Federal Hill and Fell's Point annual Mother's Day garden show. Attendees get to enjoy the peonies, hosta plants, irises, rhododendrons, hydrangeas, roses and the many Maryland native plants that abound in the couple's garden.
And Aunt Ida's birdcage.