When architect Greg Walton gives a formal, sit-down dinner party, he is always sure of one thing. Never will he invite more than three guests. Forget the fact that the kitchen of his 1860s renovated town house in Butcher's Hill is small and Mr. Walton considers himself somewhat less than a chef of repute. The reason for such an abbreviated guest list is the dining room.
This room has to be up for the title of the smallest dining room in Baltimore. Seven feet by seven feet, the postage stamp-size room sits in the rear of the house, five or six steps above the first floor. It could be described as little, tiny, minute, petite, wee, scant, itsy-bitsy, and even teeny-weeny, but never insignificant or unimportant. What it lacks in square footage, Mr. Walton's dining room more than makes up for in style and design.
"When I bought his house in 1986, the dining room was here," says Mr. Walton, "but I never really worried about its size because I knew if I had to entertain a large group of friends for dinner, we would just go out. It never really bothered me."
The dining room had been added to the house by a previous owner as a part of a back addition that included a second-floor bathroom. When Mr. Walton moved in, it was unfinished, although an L-shaped banquette occupied two walls and the plywood floor was covered with an inexpensive carpet.
Mr. Walton ripped out the sitting unit because he felt it took up too much space in his diminutive dining room and considered adding a marble floor. Since this house was the first one he had ever owned and because he was in the design business -- first with Rita St. Clair and now as architectural director/project director for the H. Chambers Co. -- he was enthusiastically enmeshed in all the ideas and products that rolled across the design floor.
"I had all these really great plans, but then I started adding them up and I said, 'Whoa,' " he adds. "A little word called budget"
forced him to abandon some of his original, more expensive ideas and tap into his own ingenuity as a way to get the look he wanted for his home.
In the dining room, he dispensed with the marble and chose instead a striking vinyl flooring of black and white squares. When his antique Duncan Phyfe dining room table just wouldn't fit into the small room, he bought a pedestal base of carved dolphins and topped it with a 42-inch round of tempered glass.
"I knew I needed a small table," he recalls, "but I knew I wasn't going to be in this house forever and that one day I would have a larger dining room, so I was really looking for a quick and inexpensive fix. My present dining room table will be a great addition to a sun room sometime in the future."
Like the rest of the house, Mr. Walton calls his dining room decorating style "definitely eclectic." In addition to the table, the room contains four Italian-made side chairs with black leather seats in a style Mr. Walton terms "empiresque," plus a contemporary painting by the husband of an old college chum, and an unusual contemporary lighting fixture that hovers like a space ship over the glass table.
"I view this light as a classic, sort of like the Barcelona chair," Mr. Walton says. "It really started a trend in floating glass fixtures. Now you see them everywhere. And, not only does this light completely illuminate the dining room table, it is designed so that no light falls directly on your face when you are dining."
The lighting effect tends to draw attention away from the boxiness of the room, helping to eliminate any stirrings of claustrophobia. Spaciousness is also promoted by a large window that dominates one 7-foot stretch of wall and a sliding glass door leading to a large deck.
"The deck was one of the reasons I bought this house," says Mr. Walton. "I grew up in Florida, and I like to be able to get to the outside. My previous eighth-floor apartment in Charles Village overlooked the Museum of Art, but it didn't have any balconies or decks."
Peeking over the privacy fence on the north side of Mr. Walton's deck, visitors view the backs of five four-story row houses that face on East Baltimore Street. In the 19th century, they belonged to prosperous German butchers who had them built to incorporate some of the finest architectural details of the day, including elaborate moldings and marble fireplaces.
"I have been told," says Mr. Walton, "that my house and the three other little houses that run together on my block were built by the owners of the big houses on East Baltimore for their children. Supposedly all the houses, the big ones and smaller ones, were built by the same Italian architect. And, really the small houses are just shrunken versions of the big houses. Even the brick work on the fronts, such as over the windows and around the doors, is identical to what's on the large homes."
Ornate brick work
It was the ornate exterior brick work that appealed to Mr. Walton's architectural interests and motivated him to buy his house. At the time, it had been partially renovated by various owners.
Besides renovating the second floor to include two rooms and a new bath, one of the early projects included removing a portion of the first-floor ceiling and second-floor ceiling, leaving in place exposed structural beams. A two-story atrium space topped with a skylight was created.
Like previous owners, Mr. Walton jumped into the renovating process. Doing some work himself, but contracting out major jobs, Mr. Walton's contributions to updating the small house include completing the dining room, redoing the kitchen, resurfacing most walls, painting, ripping out and rebuilding the stairway to the basement and converting the basement to a
second bedroom with adjoining bath.
The interior design is all Mr. Walton's own. It is a sophisticated blend of design pieces and unusual "finds" collected from art galleries, flea markets and antique stores. The first-floor living area is wrapped up in deep red walls, feather-dusted with a complementary red tone to produce a sponged effect, and exposed brick.
While the original 19th century house had a front parlor, a formal dining room and a kitchen in the basement, today the dining room and parlor have merged into one space, with a pint-sized kitchen added at one end. The kitchen is separated by an interior wall.
A slate fireplace -- originally finished with faux marble, probably to add a bit of elegance to the scaled down version of Papa's big house -- divides two seating areas. The most dominant piece of furniture is a contemporary Swain sofa in a white woven fabric that Mr. Walton says "has slight overtones of retro, like something out of the '50s."
The nearby coffee table is an original art deco piece with a glass top and a curving support of black lacquered wood. Sitting next to a Regency-styled chair covered in white raw silk is a 1950s glass-topped end table that Mr. Walton picked up at a flea market for $4.
The tiny entrance hall has its original interior door complete with a top panel of stained glass. Also in the hall are two reproductions of early 20th century chairs made by Scottish designer Charles Rene MacIntosh for the Hill House project, a Korean medicine cabinet and a display of posters Mr. Walton collected when he studied at the L'Ecole Des Beaux Arts in Paris in 1977 while he was in undergraduate studies at Georgia Tech.
When Mr. Walton was searching to buy a house five years ago, he knew he couldn't afford a big place. But, after living in about 2,500 square feet of apartment space, he wasn't thrilled with what he saw on the market. Then his agent guided him to his present home, a tiny 14-by-30 version of the big boys on East Baltimore Street. He didn't hesitate. "I said, 'Yeah, I'll take it,'" recalls Mr. Walton. "It really is a neat little house."