THE WEIGHT OF HISTORY Old houses harbor rewards, responsibility


Barbara Connell always dreamed of living in a place like this: a 19th-century stone farmhouse surrounded by meadows and trees and a slow, rocky creek.

"It's all we ever wanted," said Ms. Connell. She and her husband, Michael, bought the house -- which adjoins a sheep farm near the rural town of Darlington -- in 1990. "I had dreams of seeing my daughters married here with big receptions. I wanted a farm the kids could bring their families back to."

But those, like the Connells, who have bought a piece of history have also bought a heap of extra work. Bound by conscience or local, state and federal laws, many owners of old homes must maintain the homes' historic features and can renovate only when necessary. Sometimes even the most arcane changes must be approved by local authorities.

For example, if one of the original glass panes in Ms. Connell's family room breaks -- a definite possibility with five, and soon six, children in the house -- she can't just head for the local home improvement center. She must call a restoration supply company for a replacement pane.

George Robbins, an O'Conor, Piper & Flynn agent who handles properties in the Otterbein and Federal Hill areas of Baltimore, said even if an old home is not officially designated "historic," its owner must keep it "architecturally correct."

The owners must conform to codes and covenants of an area association and to the appropriate local historical organization, which, in Baltimore, is the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation, or CHAP, Mr. Robbins said. "Area association covenants take precedence. If you were to repaint a house even in the same color you'd have to get approval from the governing association."

Control of historic homes is often not as strict in rural counties as in Baltimore. Jay and Sally Van Deusen own a stone house and barn, builtin 1844, just down the road from the Connells in Harford County. They began to make structural changes to the property as soon as they bought it in 1989, armed only with a county building permit.

"Here, there aren't any restrictions to speak of unless you have your house [deeded to] the state historical trust," Mr. Van Deusen said. "Then the trust owns the easements on the property, and you are very limited in what you can do."

Nevertheless, Mr. Van Deusen, a general contractor, was careful in renovating the house. He developed a master plan with an architect and draftspeople before work started. They don't plan to make changes that don't fit with the original design of the house, and they are using materials from restoration suppliers.

The owners of a Butchers Hill house in Baltimore, however, needed more than a local building permit to restore their home -- they needed approval from the neighborhood historic committee and CHAP. The large Greek revival house on Pratt Street, built around 1860, is in a designated historic district.

Jakob Metz, a sales agent with O'Conor Piper & Flynn who later sold the house when it had been restored, said the owners got the go-ahead for major changes only after promising to preserve the house's original details as much as possible.

They installed central air conditioning and two outdoor decks, one off the fourth bedroom overlooking the city and the Inner Harbor. At the same time, they kept unusual features, like an old claw-foot tub in one bath, original flooring and rare tiger maple balusters with a walnut handrail along the staircase.

Mr. Metz said he sold the completely restored and renovated home two months ago to Tim and Robyn Gulstrom for $195,000.

"I love old houses," Ms. Gulstrom said. "I'm not really a modern person and I believe they are much stronger homes; they used better construction techniques in those days."

Some homes, particularly those listed or eligible for listing on the state or national historic registers, are governed not only by a community association and a city commission -- the Maryland Historical Trust may also be acutely interested in what happens to the property.

Lauren Bowlin, a preservation officer with the state historical trust in Annapolis, said her office doesn't regulate what color of paint owners can use -- that's left to the neighborhood association or historical committee, if there is one. Instead, Ms. Bowlin said, her office looks at the bigger picture: identifying, evaluating and managing the treatment of historic places.

The trust also administers a limited loan fund for individuals who want to buy or restore certified historic properties. The Historic Preservation Loan Program provides individuals with as much as xTC $50,000 at a fixed annual interest rate -- now set at just under 6 percent. "In order to receive a loan you have to be turned down by conventional lenders," Ms. Bowlin said. "And at any given time we may have the money available or we may not," since loan repayments are used to make new loans.

Whether or not owners get assistance to buy their old homes from the state, maintaining history is neither cheap nor easy.

The Van Deusens paid $168,000 for their house, barn and 2.25 acres in 1989 and so far have spent $40,000 in renovations. They still have the slate roof to replace, plus reinsulation, new plumbing and radon mitigation to take care of.

That's plenty of work, but Mr. Van Deusen said the rewards are many.

"You do have to keep an eye on the ultimate value a house could bring," Mr. Van Deusen said. "But my wife and I decided we're willing to go a little past that to have a house we're comfortable living in."

And Ms. Gulstrom is reminded of the rewards of living in an old house every time she and her husband step out on its top deck.

"When we get out there and watch the sun go down and the lights start to come on in the city, it's just magic," she said.

(For more information about buying or rehabilitating old homes, contact the Maryland Historical Trust, 514-7600, or the Baltimore Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation, 396-4866.)

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