It's "back to school" for children throughout the area, but those words have taken on a new meaning for Linda and Bob Stevenson since they bought a converted schoolhouse in Relay as a home for themselves and their daughter, Heather.
Built as a one-room schoolhouse during 1860s, the building has seen numerous expansions, including a library and additional classrooms. The Stevensons became the third family to live in the schoolhouse since it was converted into a residence in 1920.
And while they intend to make the 19th-century structure comfortable for modern living, they're also determined not to forget its original purpose.
As an instant reminder of the home's heritage, a child's old-fashioned school desk sits on the brick front porch, and Linda Stevenson, the librarian for Relay Elementary School, has filled her home library with 100 old schoolbooks.
"The books were so old they couldn't be included in the new catalog system at the school," she explained. "So they're here and the children can come borrow them when they like."
Since the Stevensons moved into the house 18 months ago, they've played host to a Christmas tour and invited Relay students for a winter visit. The students entered through the front door into the original classroom, now a great room measuring 23 feet square. A huge stone fireplace beckoned the children to gather round and listen to a lesson. Entrances on either side of the fireplace wall lead to a library lined with bookshelves.
The house was on the market for just four days before the Stevensons bought it, paying in the low $200,000s. Since then, they've made about $20,000 in improvements, including modernizing the eat-in kitchen that sits to the left of the great room and connects to the formal dining room.
Two bedrooms are to the right of the great room and share an adjoining bathroom. A powder room is between the great room and the library.
Doorways on either side of the library lead to a comfortable den, a bedroom and a bathroom, which boasts a laundry closet with a washer and dryer as well as a claw-foot bathtub. Linda Stevenson said this will be her mother's part of the house when she comes to live with them later this year.
Another door in the library goes to the outside, where steps lead to a small English garden enclosed by a white picket fence. "We created this mainly for our dog, Pumpernickel," Bob Stevenson said.
A gated trellis from the garden backs onto a 2-acre back yard that includes towering oak trees, as well as a sunflower patch.
Although they hired contractors to gut the kitchen and put up the wallpaper borders in most rooms, Bob Stevenson smoothed and patched the horsehair plaster walls himself -- not an easy task, especially since the house has walls 14 feet high.
The cedar-shingle exterior drank 38 gallons of cream-colored paint. For the shutters on the front porch, Linda was careful to find a paint color -- deep indigo -- that would have been available and in use in the 1800s.
Plans are under way to cement the dirt basement, but the history-minded couple wouldn't dream of blocking or altering the large human-size tunnels that enter the basement from the rear of the house.
"It's not documented, but these tunnels could have been part of the Underground Railroad," Linda said, referring to the route that escaped slaves took to freedom in the North. "This house was built during the Civil War and the Underground Railroad did run through Relay."
Other historic but undocumented features of the house are the wrought iron Corinthian columns on the front porch, which are said to come from the old Ford Theater in Baltimore.
The Stevensons also have no plans to update the antique doorbell that was most likely added by the home's first occupants, the Coll family, in the days before electricity.
Pull the brass knob at the front door and a rope rings an actual bell above the doorway on the inside of the house. But the couple did make the practical decision to put gas logs in the old stone fireplace out of fear that the chimney could not handle wood burning.
Perhaps the most modern addition to the house is the state-of-the-art alarm system the Stevensons installed. "It's top-of-the-line all the way," Bob Stevenson said. "It's voice-activated and has lasers."
Despite this impressive effort to keep intruders out, the family admitted that perhaps they have visitors inside the house that no alarm system can detect.
"Bob and Heather swear the house is haunted," Linda Stevenson said. "Both of them have seen white lights hovering in the dining room, but I think they're really seeing reflections on the windows of airplanes flying into BWI."
In the dining room, a working Victrola sits adjacent to a $50 mahogany sideboard (a Goodwill find) that hosts a beautiful cut glass punch bowl that once belonged to Bob Stevenson's mother.
The library's warm red and amber tones have masculine touches such as Bob Stevenson's firearm collection and the heads of wild game. The bedrooms have softer colors of pinks and pale greens to match inch-thick Oriental rugs that cover the wooden floors.
Some of their decorating choices would seem incongruent in most houses, but they work perfectly here.
For example, a wooden rocking chair complete with crocheted throw looks at home in the kitchen. A mahogany wash stand and mirror don't seem out of place along a wall in the great room.
In addition, a three-story Victorian dollhouse sits on the floor in the great room. Both the Stevensons remember toiling into the wee hours on Christmas Eve years ago to finish it for their 3-year-old daughter, now 16. "Now, we have our own big house to work on," he said.
Pub Date: 8/30/98