If you think Baltimore rowhouses are narrow and cramped, just get a look at Debra and Francis Rahl's place in Union Square.
The nine-room, 5,000-square-foot showplace on Stricker Street in West Baltimore is as spacious and elegant as any megahouse in the suburbs. You'd just never know it passing by.
"It's about 75 feet deep," says Mrs. Rahl, a seamstress who runs a custom drapery business from her third-floor sewing room. "It's really a front house and a back house attached together."
Mrs. Rahl, who has done extensive research on the house and the surrounding neighborhood, says 27 S. Stricker St. was built in 1857 and intended for a well-to-do family.
The house, which faces Union Square park, is really five levels because the second and third floors of the "front house," which would have been used by the residents, are higher than the top two floors of the rear house, which would have been used by servants.
The Rahls, who have spent 15 years renovating the house, use the entire structure and refer to the various rooms as "first-floor front," "second-floor back" and so on.
The front rooms of the top two floors are nearly a flight higher than the back rooms on the same floors in order to accommodate 12-foot ceilings in the front hall and parlor.
The original house had eight fireplaces, although only six remain and, of those, three are operable. Three others have been put out of service by such modern amenities as central heating and indoor plumbing, with ducts and pipes running through the flues.
Before the Rahls bought the Victorian Italianate rowhouse in 1980, it had been divided and redivided into apartments of various configurations, with many rooms cut up by additional walls.
"There were refrigerators and sinks and radiators all over the place. But nothing worked," Mrs. Rahl says. "It was really a mess."
The Rahls saw through the disarray, imagining the house's former grandeur. After buying it for $60,000, they have invested at least $30,000 over the years, doing most of the renovation and repair work themselves.
In addition to removing walls to get the house into its original configuration, the biggest project was rebuilding the floor between the dining room and second floor (for which they did bring in professionals). The previous owner, an architect, had removed it to give the dining room a dramatic, two-story ceiling. An ultramodern catwalk crossed overhead on a diagonal to reach a back bedroom.
Although the Rahls lived with the catwalk for several years, they decided it didn't fit the Victorian features in the rest of the house, so they removed it and replaced the floor, turning that space into a large, second-floor bathroom.
The house is filled with antiques and unusual finds. Avid collectors, the Rahls frequent estate sales, auctions, antique shops and flea markets.
Stalked for a year
The piece de resistance in the parlor, for example, is an ornate, 10-foot "pier mirror" with attached cornices that fits between two windows. The couple got it from a Lafayette Square home where the owner was selling the house and wanted the unusual piece to find an appropriate home elsewhere.
Above the fireplace sits a huge mantle frame with new mirror that the couple stalked in a nearby antiques store for a year because the price was too high. When it finally ended up in the back of the store, with other things piled in front, the Rahls made a much lower offer.
Most of their furniture -- from 19th century oak parlor sets to armoires to plant stands -- has been discovered in terrible shape and creatively restored by Mr. or Mrs. Rahl. One of her favorite finds is an armoire she got for $5 that now serves as a cabinet and bookshelves in the family room.
"The Center Stage had a prop sale to get rid of old stuff and it was there, on the floor, literally in pieces. I asked how much and the woman said, 'Is $5 OK?' When we carried it out, we had no idea it had the mother-of-pearl inlays."
She made the draperies
Mr. Rahl, an electrical engineer who works as an auditor with Westinghouse, constructed wood paneling and built-in cabinets in the dining room, extending across an entire wall. He built 10-foot-high bookshelves with built-in window seats in the family room.
Mrs. Rahl has wallpapered, painted and added other design elements, including cornices and moldings, throughout the house. She made all the draperies and window treatments. Where moldings and other woodwork was removed or in bad repair, the couple has painstakingly added new pieces to match the original.
A 15-by-17-foot deck was added to the roof of the back house, accessed by new patio doors in the family room, which also has a working fireplace and wet bar.
For information about the house tour, call (410) 233-3168 or (410) 945-1497.