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SMALL WONDER Rowhouse blends retro influence with polished contemporary look

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Tucked away on a narrow side street in a typical Baltimore rowhouse community is a contemporary rendition of a traditional rowhouse that is anything but typical.

Transformed by a 1990s renovation, the home's original 1930s interior of small, dark rooms has been stripped away to create a spacious, open floor plan reminiscent of a New York loft.

The house, in the Roland Heights neighborhood, is bright, cheery and uncluttered. Not an inch of its 1,700 square feet is wasted. An understated color scheme -- dominated by black, bright white and khaki -- creates a continuity in design that visually enlarges the living space. Occasional punches of brilliant hues make the rooms come alive.

A '50s influence can be seen here and there in a faux leopard rug, an amoeba-shaped, glass-top desk, a curved-back chair. But this is a house that goes beyond the '50s to create a polished, urban look that is definitely 1995.

"First and foremost it's a small house," said interior designer Jay Jenkins of Alexander Baer Associates. "It's too small to be showy. Everything has to be both beautiful and functional. You've got to use every square inch of this house."

Because of the home's small size, continuity is stressed. Nearly everything is of one kind throughout. The shutters are all plantation style, the carpet color is the same in almost all the rooms, the interior doors are all glass, the windows are the same pattern, and bright white is the color used on nearly all the walls. All of the laminate counter tops are a khaki color, as are the special walls built to hide the home's ductwork and air-conditioning units.

Special attention was given to lighting that would maximize the size of the house and focus attention on accessory items.

"We made use of as much space and as much light as possible," Mr. Jenkins said. "And we planned it to give the greatest impact for the least amount of money."

Owner Ken Hobart kept a careful eye on spending. He used stock items from local retailers, including cabinets and the bathtub, to cut costs. His budget was about $70,000 for the complete renovation -- including plumbing, electrical, heating, air conditioning and security systems.

Mr. Hobart, a designer for a firm that does Christmas decorating, purchased the brick rowhouse with wooden covered porch for about $15,000 in 1991. It had been condemned after a fire.

"The owner could come in and gut it and make it his," said Mr. Jenkins, who is Mr. Hobart's friend as well as his designer. "It allowed him to make it his own completely."

And so, Mr. Jenkins added, the home accurately reflects Mr. Hobart's personality. "It's a contemporary, urbane and fun little house," he said.

Living room, dining room and kitchen flow together to fill the first floor -- a seamless space for cooking and entertaining. There's casual seating in the living room, a comfortable table in the dining room, and a large, open kitchen that clearly is the focal point of the home.

Floor cabinets of matte black laminate and with custom polished chrome hardware stand in stark contrast to bright white walls. A black stove and dishwasher blend smoothly with the cabinetwork. A standard side-by-side refrigerator with customized walls built around it takes on the look of a built-in at a fraction of the cost.

An architectural grid of square stacked shelves fills one wall with an open display of glassware, plates, mixing bowls, table accessories, pitchers, cookbooks and silver wine buckets. Votive candles flicker in its dozens of nooks and crannies during evening engagements.

There's plenty of work space; a double-wide counter top on a peninsula that juts into the dining room at a 45-degree angle is great for a bar, buffet or simply for serving. Beneath the counter top on the dining-room side of the peninsula is additional built-in cabinet space for the stereo system, fine china and crystal.

The dining room is cozy, with a glass table supported by a custom-etched stainless-steel column. The chairs are a retro '50s design with curved backs and circular seats upholstered in two shades of velvet -- pumpkin and claret. Beneath the table is a piece of faux leopard carpet cut into a triangle to fit the shape of the dining room.

The living room is furnished entirely in neutral shades, with the exception of the brightly colored pillows on the simple, contemporary upholstered chairs, Mr. Hobart's own artwork on the wall and an old drum coffee table upholstered in purple and yellow satin.

"There was no room for overly decorative upholstery," Mr. Jenkins said. "It needed to be simple. The color needs to be proportionate to the space it goes in."

At the rear of the house, a flash of color emerges through the open door of the powder room, a former cold kitchen that now has striking watermelon walls adorned with colorful artwork.

Near the front entrance, there's an antique Tiffany lamp on a boomerang-shaped, glass-top desk with glass-block supports. Tables throughout the home are adorned with framed photographs of Mr. Hobart's family and friends. An ever-changing assortment of collectibles -- from Spanish religious icons to action figures to globes -- reflects the interests of the owner.

The dark blue/purple carpet on the staircase slashes a zig-zag line of color to the second floor. In this adults-only household, railings were removed to accentuate this architectural element.

On the second floor, glass is creatively used to give the illusion of an open floor plan even though there are walls that divide the rooms. A custom ripple-glass panel in a wall over the staircase brightens the second-floor vestibule while still preserving the privacy of the master bedroom.

Stock sidelights for a front door were adapted into interior French doors for the master and guest bedrooms and the closets. The bathroom door is frosted for privacy.

The house, which originally had three bedrooms, now has two in a spacious second-floor layout more appropriate to the small scale of the home. The master bedroom is a simple environment furnished only with a bed, a mission-style maple armoire and stone-topped column end tables.

Muslin hung from decorative clips on the ceiling create a soft backdrop for the contemporary maple bed frame with woven canvas headboard. Dozens of sets of sheets and comforters allow for quick and easy redecorating.

The bathroom is contemporary, with ceiling-mounted draperies concealing a whirlpool bathtub, glass blocks in the window enclosure, walls built around the sink, and horn-shaped frosted glass sconces mounted on the mirror.

A studio in the basement provides a work space where Mr. Hobart can create his multimedia works of art. Extensive shelving for storage keeps clutter out of the way.

About 30 small recessed lighting fixtures with adjustable apertures were used along with track lighting to throw low-voltage light on vertical surfaces in the house. The purpose was to make the house look more expansive and inviting, and to punctuate decorative items.

The lighting for such a small home could not be too conspicuous or it would diminish the importance of the furnishings and accessories, said Bob Jones, owner of Jones Lighting Specialists in Towson. In supplying those inconspicuous fixtures, made sure they still offered enough light to keep the home from looking dismal.

In the second-loor vestibule, an alabaster disk chandelier hangs in a custom recess. In the kitchen, wall-mounted plaster sconces with ceramic fruit and vegetables on top add interest to the room, as well as light.

"When you're dealing with tiny spaces you have to take every opportunity to make a statement," Mr. Jones said.

As for Mr. Hobart, he is pleased with the careful attention to design that has given him a living space that is comfortable and easy to maintain, yet aesthetically pleasing. "I didn't do it to be showplace," he said. "I wanted it to be a functional small space. Its premise is that it's really for me. The house is backdrop for me. It becomes a stage."

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