On a rainy St. Patrick's Day in 1990, at an auction in an old barn in Parkton, Roseann Smallman believed with her every freckle in the luck of the Irish.
Her fiance, Dr. Frank Velez, was engaged in a bidding war with a real estate developer for a 55-acre parcel in northern Baltimore County. On it stood a farmhouse built in 1832, the original caretaker's house for Gorsuch Mills, and six outbuildings. An aged former owner had let the historic structures decay, but Dr. Velez was convinced of the property's potential. Suddenly, with the strike of the auctioneer's gavel, Dr. Velez's three-year search for a secluded homestead was over; he succeeded in buying the farm for just over half the asking price of $400,000.
Elated, the couple toured their new home. Young, ambitious, and in love, they were undaunted by the lack of central heat, the omission of a kitchen, and the cheerless living room piled high with musty old rugs.
"I was thinking this was adorable," remembers Mrs. Velez, 33, grimacing at her naivete. "Then we went down into the cellar, and there was a snake."
The couple returned to Brooklyn, N.Y., and to work at the Methodist Hospital where he was a surgical resident and she, a nurse. They came back to Baltimore County on May 1 to show off their purchase to family.
"They told us we were crazy if we thought we were going to do anything with the house, other than burn it," Mrs. Velez says. "I was crying."
After hauling Dumpster-loads of debris out of the house, the couple moved in June 17, 1990 -- the day after their wedding. Dr. Velez, now a general surgeon at St. Joseph Medical Center and other area hospitals, started studying for his boards; Mrs. Velez, a critical care nurse specialist at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, became pregnant.
Work on the house began in earnest even though the couple had demanding careers and a baby. Although they contracted out the bigger jobs, such as the masonry and the electric heating, they've done many of the improvements themselves. "I took everything back to solid foundation," Dr. Velez says. "With this old house, it would have been foolish to do it any other way."
When Dr. Velez wasn't studying, he was pointing up the original stone walls in the living room and adding on a brick and tile kitchen.
"We -- friends and I -- dug the [living room] floor out 18 inches and poured a proper floor, then put a sub-floor down and then put this chestnut wood floor on top," Dr. Velez says.
The renovations have not always gone smoothly, Mrs. Velez says. She remembers that when her mother first came to visit after their daughter, Erin, now 4, was born, the living room had a brown dirt floor with a plank across to get to the winding stairs. By the time their second daughter, Mary Melissa, was born a year ago, their living situation had vastly improved. The house had a new brick and tile eat-in kitchen, three bedrooms, and two baths.
"It's a true labor of love; I'd rather have it this way," he said. "This has heritage and history. There's so much left of the original house. It amazes me that something can be made in 1832 and still be standing so strong."