One category in the 1990 Great American Home Awards was especially hard-fought, according to Sara Chase, one of the six preservation professionals who judged the National Trust for Historic Preservation's second annual competition. While each of the categories -- including exterior renovation, interior rehabilitation and bed and breakfast inns -- had many worthy contenders, the "sympathetic addition" division was a particularly tough call.
But when jurors gathered in Washington for a three-day session of reviewing materials, comparing notes and (as Ms. Chase jokes) "slugging it out," one house emerged the victor: the O'Hare House in Silver Spring, owned by Martha R. Lanigan.
"I think as much as anything it was the conscious attention to scale and proportion that won an award in a field of so many good contenders," the juror says.
A "sympathetic addition" is a newly built addition to an old house, which harmonizes with the original structure in size and materials; inside, these additions may be crammed with modern conveniences, but outside they often appear to be the product of the craftsmanship of an earlier day.
No one could have been more surprised than Ms. Lanigan, a procurement analyst for the Commerce Department, when her house won first prize in the category. O'Hare House, built in the first half of the 19th century, is not a big Victorian laden with gingerbread or a dignified, boxwood-hedged Federal, but a small, tidy farmhouse, as plain as a Garth Wood painting. But its very simplicity satisfies. The new wing, made of white-painted redwood, blends seamlessly with the white brick house, and the total effect is pure, fresh and very country -- despite the fact that the house sits in the middle of a brand-new housing development in the state's wealthiest county.
The first thing a visitor will notice, though, is not the architecture but the cats. A couple of felines scramble off the porch and into hiding when a stranger approaches. Inside, a long-haired, sweet-faced calico lounges on the kitchen table, a tabby perches on a windowsill and a little black head with round yellow eyes pokes out of a basket on top of a pine armoire. They look right in their element, adding an extra cozy touch to a house that has been home to Ms. Lanigan at two different times in her life.
Her family lived in the house, then surrounded only by fields, for a couple of years while they built their own home nearby. While Ms. Lanigan was not actually born in the house, she lived there during her earliest years. Her photo album includes a picture of the 1-year-old Martha and her twin sister posing out front.
Even by that time, almost halfway through the 20th century, the farmhouse had never been been modernized with plumbing and heating systems, although a newer addition on the side had a bathtub and sink. Heat was provided by a wood-burning cookstove, and there was an outhouse in the back yard, next to the brick smokehouse. The next family to live in the house were farmers who kept cattle, and used the antique smokehouse, as well as a root cellar and well, until they moved away in 1980.
"They had kids the same age as my brothers and sisters and I," Ms. Lanigan reminisces. "There was a pond down there, and we would ice skate together."
The area was still rural in 1984 when Martha Lanigan, who was visiting her mother, decided to take a walk across the fields and visit the house she had known in childhood.
"It was being vandalized and destroyed," she remembers.
When the developer who owned the land applied for permits to build houses, she says, Montgomery County officials discovered the old house (called O'Hare House after a 19th century owner) and put it on the county "master plan" for historic buildings. As the developer could not bulldoze it, he left it vacant -- and, unfortunately, at the mercy of vandals who broke out the windows, made off with much of the interior woodwork and ripped out the (admittedly rudimentary) electrical wiring.
Ms. Lanigan, who has a soft spot for creatures in distress, immediately wanted the house -- to save, and to live in.
She arranged to buy the property, essentially paying the cost of the land alone. Then she set about stabilizing the house to keep vandalism at bay. The vandals had done her one favor, though -- in knocking out part of a wall, they revealed a fireplace that had been boarded up, and that she hadn't known existed.
To find out more about houses of the period she spent an afternoon at the Library of Congress going through the Historic Buildings Survey. She was aided in her research efforts by Bobbi Hahn of the Montgomery County Preservation Commission, who also advised her about renovation guidelines she would have to observe as the owner of a protected property.
Ms. Hahn refered Ms. Lanigan to Oak Grove Designs, which had done some work on county-owned historic buildings. In 1987, as the neighborhood's new houses went up around it, the Laytonsville contractors set to work to restore O'Hare House to livable condition.
Two rickety 20th century additions came off. A brick-red tin roof was added. New windows went in, and windowsills were built to replace rotten old ones. The fireplaces were rebuilt. Updated electrical systems were installed in the original house, which has dining and living areas downstairs, three bedrooms upstairs.
"I decided I wanted to keep the old part of the house like it was, and not add new things to it," Ms. Lanigan says. "I think the basic structure is really beautiful, and I didn't want to disturb it, so I decided to build a wing on the side for plumbing and heating and all that stuff."
The addition was designed by a friend, architect Richard D. Coleman, who drew up the plans for free. The addition's first floor includes a living area called the "sun room," a pantry with a built-in pet door, and a bathroom. Upstairs are a walk-in closet (the house had no closets of its own), another bath and a utility area with the washer and dryer and the heating system. A door had to be created to link the second floor of the addition with the largest bedroom, and plumbing was run to the kitchen, but those were the only structural modifications made to the original building.
One feature of which Ms. Lanigan is especially proud is the beautifully grained wooden fireplace mantel in the kitchen-dining room, installed just before Christmas. The mantel was made by woodworker Arnold d'Epagnier from branches cut from a large black walnut tree on the property.
The house is decorated with a cheerful mix of country-primitive antiques, vintage decorative pieces, cat-motif art and furniture from the '30s and '40s. "I bought my first house in 1974, and I furnished it completely, you'll be pleased to know, from Amvets in Baltimore," she says with a laugh.
Since getting involved with the house, which she moved into three years ago, Ms. Lanigan has been a committed preservationist.
"I hope that maybe I can do some good by winning an award," she says. "Maybe I can make people realize that if they save the old houses they can turn out beautifully.
"I think that a contest like this shows that respect for historic PTC integrity is widespread," Sara Chase remarks. "It's not just a handful of elite people in high-style houses, but all kinds of people in all kinds of houses across the country. Each of these people has been a shining light, a beacon, a leader. It's awfully nice to give people the added award of national recognition for something they did, essentially, to please themselves."