Federal Hill renovation brings generations together

Just as houses come in all different designs and sizes, so do the families that live within them.

The large, end-of-group rowhouse in Federal Hill that belongs to the Johnson family shelters multiple generations.

"We are three generations of women, a poodle and two goldfish all living in this home that we decided to make 21st century," laughed Gilda Johnson, who lives there with her 94-year-old mother, Carlyn Johnson, and her 16-year-old daughter, Ce Ce Johnson.

This family of women own three residential properties and five parcels of commercial property in Federal Hill. Until seven years ago, Gilda Johnson ran the family business, Gilbert Marine Supply, before deciding to close it down. At the time, she and her mother and daughter lived in the two smaller homes across the street from their current home, which had been rented out.

"Renovating this big house was a huge undertaking. We gutted the whole thing and added a third floor," she said. "And we had the opportunity to watch the entire renovation."

Little more than a year later, this former two-story rowhouse rises to three stories, with a mansard-style roof, dormered windows, iron fencing around the rooftop deck — one of four decks — and an elevator to climb from the finished basement to the very top of the house. The renovation by Carl Smith of Home Pro Contracting in Baltimore, with kitchen design by Mark Alt of Clearwater Woodworking, totaled more than $800,000.

Beyond the front door, visitors are immediately taken aback at the sight of a winding staircase just beyond a formal living room. Its wrought iron spindles and oak railing lead all the way to the roof top deck — if one chooses to walk. Otherwise, the elevator in the hallway behind it stops at every floor.

Gold fabric Roman shades grace several windows and were hung by Frank Bush, a local designer, who also upholstered family furniture pieces while designing and hanging the living room drapes. Except for the green slate in the galley kitchen and the marble flooring in the baths, Brazilian cherry wood floors are laid throughout the home.

The casual elegance of the dining room is enhanced by a large gilt-framed mirror of beveled glass bought at Second Chance, a local second-hand emporium. The 1947 mahogany, double- pedestal Duncan Fife-style table sits in the center of the room opposite a built-in, cherry wood breakfront. The dark wood of the dining room serves as dramatic contrast to the light colored, painted wood cabinetry and stainless appliances of the kitchen.

Each of the bedrooms, two on the second floor and two on the third floor, has its own bathroom while the back rooms on each level open to private decks. From the third-level deck, a circular iron staircase treats the climber to the rooftop, where comfortable furniture and a steady breeze allow for social lingering.

Three generations of personal furnishings and accessories are found throughout the interior — some delightfully endearing, such as a Little Red Riding Hood ceramic cookie jar that is more than 100 years old, others bold and contemporary, such as a red abstract painting by Liz Avery which hangs in the dining room. There are a bevy of watercolors done by Carlyn Johnson, many displayed in her basement studio.

Accepting the move that brought the generations together has not always been smooth going, however.

"It was hard for me to adjust, I preferred my old life living by myself," said Carlyn Johnson. "But now I realize that everything Gilda thought of for this house was the correct thing to keep me out of a nursing home. Generationally, it's very well thought out."

Gilda, a widow who enjoys spoiling her company and her daughter's stay-over friends, adds, "It's given us the freedom to easily entertain. We're able to bring the rest of the world in."

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Making the dream

Dream element: The Johnsons' brick, end-of-group home is in Federal Hill. All three women have grown up in this vibrant city neighborhood, know their neighbors, attend church just blocks away and shop at Cross Street Market. On their third-story rooftop deck, they enjoy a 360-degree view of the city, harbor and beyond. "When you've lived in the city all of your life and that's all you've ever known, it is solitude versus seclusion," said Gilda Johnson. "But the way this house is set up, we have privacy, but with a bird's eye view of the area."

Dream design: Constructed of brick, the home features three outdoor decks in addition to the rooftop. The first-floor deck is enclosed. Because it is a corner house, there are side windows on all three levels allowing for abundant interior light. A small, gated yard and parking pad is at the rear of the property.

Dream interior: With interior dimensions of 18 feet wide by 80 feet long and copious interior natural light, the first floor is laid out with a breathtaking, center circular staircase which divides the living area in the front from the open dining room, kitchen and breakfast nook in the rear. An eclectic mix of traditional and contemporary decor is found throughout the home, with several pieces purchased from Second Chance and Shofers, both local furniture establishments.