"Wow!," begins the note on a brown paper napkin, left recently at the home of Mark and Lorraine Harbold of Woodbine. "Your's has got to be one of the five most beautiful houses in the county -- hell, the whole state!"
Suburbanites in tract housing may not get many strangers stopping to praise the architectural features of their homes.
But for the Harbolds, who built a reproduction of a New England saltbox in western Howard County, such accolades are routine.
"We have a lot of cyclists come through here," says Mr. Harbold, who designed the home based on other saltbox plans. "They'll give us a thumbs up or shout, 'Love your house.' "
The brown house with orange trim sits on three acres off Old Frederick Road, looking like a little bit of Old Sturbridge Village dropped in the middle of a new suburban development. The main section of the house was based on a circa 1720 saltbox and the rear section, which makes the house an L-shape, was based on additions typical of the 1780s.
On the exterior, the house is an accurate reproduction down to the smallest details, including the size of windows, color and two huge stones used as steps to the front door.
Inside, the Harbolds made decisions along the way as to how "historically accurate" they would be. For example, they put electrical outlets in all rooms, but had them placed in floorboards and painted over them so they would be unobtrusive.
In the "keeping room," which would be called a breakfast nook these days, they choose an overhead fixture with faux candles that uses electric light bulbs.
"We had a lot of discussions about how pure we would be," says Mrs. Harbold, a nurse and education coordinator at Johns Hopkins Medical Center. "We tried to strike a balance between functionality and authenticity."
The furniture is a combination of antiques and reproductions of period furniture. Curtains were selected to be harmonious with the period of the home, as were interior paint colors.
They searched throughout New England for craftsmen to hand-plane doors and wood paneling. They scoured dozens of shops looking for antique doors, hardware and other elements to incorporate. It took months to find just the right cabinetmaker (who was eventually located in Connecticut) to make wooden cabinets for the kitchen.
It took six local tradesmen and another half-dozen specialists to complete the house. Mr. Harbold, who served as general contractor, oversaw (obsessed over, says his wife) every detail in the 2,800-square-foot, eight-room house.
Why do so much work when they could have just hired a builder and handed over some plans?
"I've been planning this since I was 16," says Mr. Harbold, who works as a sales representative for Vintage Lumber, a specialty flooring company in Frederick. "Since I was a teen-ager, old architecture and furnishings have been an interest of mine."
At work, Mr. Harbold deals regularly with craftsmen and builders, so he wasn't overwhelmed by the daunting task of assembling a team of workers and selecting materials to put their dream house together.
The key to being this involved with building a house is careful planning, he says, adding that years of taking photographs of homes they admired and looking at plans saved on headaches and heartaches once construction began.
"It went pretty smoothly. Except for the weather, which set us back, it was actually pretty painless," Mr. Harbold says.
The couple purchased the lot for $91,000 in 1991, started building in October 1992 and completed the job in September 1993. Total construction costs were $205,000 -- not a small sum -- on top of the lot cost.
But Mr. Harbold quickly points up that lots of folks buy big houses on large lots and pay that much or more without getting the same quality.