Couple's vision of the waterfront comes into focus "Claustrophobic" cottage given a major overhaul


Tommy and Lisa Stem longed for water views and open, airy space when they began searching for the first home they would buy together. After a renovation that literally raised the roof and blew out the walls, they've realized their vision on a street of simple cottages in Bowleys Quarters in southeastern Baltimore County.

Soon after they married, the couple decided to look for a new home to replace his Timonium residence. "I'm a California girl," said Lisa, who was raised on the Pacific Coast. "I wanted to be on the water."

Tommy, a fisherman and crabber, also was drawn to the water, and the couple soon found their 1940s-built house on Bay Drive near Miami Beach. "It was one of the first houses we looked at," Lisa said.

The couple, who share office space in Towson -- he sells insurance and she owns an independent adjusting firm -- knew it would take a tremendous amount of work to transform the house's single floor of tiny, dark-paneled rooms into the bright, open spaces they imagined. But the property boasted 50 pristine feet along the water facing the Chesapeake Bay.

Place had 'potential'

"We could see the potential," Lisa said. A small guest house added some living space, and a lot across the street that came with the house offered garage space and additional land.

Still, the Stems balked at the $365,000 asking price. They kept an eye on the house, watched the price drop a few times, and decided in July 1996 to make an offer. When a $230,000 counteroffer came back, the Stems took the leap and down came the walls.

"The place was claustrophobic," Lisa explained. Leaving only the kitchen and a small bedroom that faced the water, the couple knocked down all the walls separating living, dining and den spaces. They replaced load-bearing walls with classical columns, except for weathered pier posts leading to the refurbished sun room.

Whimsical decor

Sunlight now streams through the length of the first floor, and a bright, whimsical decor adds to the couple's feel that they're living in a "full-time vacation home."

The remake didn't stop with the home's living space, but expansion involved a parade of building inspectors and negotiating the channels of a convoluted permit process. Construction in waterfront areas such as theirs requires approval from a myriad of bureaucracies, including the Environmental Protection Agency.

Tommy said that clearance for their interior and exterior projects involved 11 permits and countless inspections. The couple were pleasantly surprised to find the inspectors often could be allies.

Regulations mandated that the square footage in the remodeled house could not exceed the existing floor space. "Luckily," Tommy said, "there was a floor in the attic."

Restricted plan

The couple got permission to raise the roof to create a true second floor and include the attic footage in the total, but still was restricted to the original plan's two bedrooms and two baths. Plans to create two bedrooms on the second floor were scrapped. A new staircase leads to a large, skylight-brightened master suite.

A balcony off the bedroom faces the water that drew the Stems to Bay Drive, and cathedral ceilings open the former attic space. A vanity area and bath with sunken tub complete the Stems' personal retreat.

The couple also made extensive improvements outside their bTC home. A new pier provides direct access to the bay, and a personal watercraft gets frequent use -- their yellow Labrador, Sunshine, begs for rides all summer, they said. They enclosed the property with a white picket fence and latticework as a backdrop for the profusion of plants in their garden.

Upgraded patio

The upgraded patio off the first floor, with a built-in grill and mini-kitchen, allows the Stems to cook, eat and entertain on the waterfront. Their "personal boardwalk" connects pier, patio and the gate to the street, winding through arbors past flower beds and a goldfish- and lily-filled ornamental garden pond.

The pond, which leads visitors to the bay-facing "front" of the house past a working miniature water mill, is one of the couple's favorite additions to the landscape. Lisa had her son Eric -- currently residing in the guest house with his fiancee -- did the digging in its installation.

The Stems said a key to keeping down renovation costs was doing as much of the work as they could themselves. While they called in professionals to add needed support beams and build the second floor, they did much of the construction and finishing themselves -- and called on Eric and his brother Denny for help on heavier projects such as installing new kitchen cabinets.

"There are 4,600 screws in the deck," Tommy said, with the authority of one who's counted them going in.

Neighbors are assets

After spending two years and about $100,000 remodeling their dream house on the water, the Stems have found their neighbors are one of the biggest assets of living on Bay Drive.

"The people here have been so friendly, and we look out for each other," Tommy said. Neighbors played a role in their renovation, too. Artist Frank Bisasky, who lives down the street, painted a fanciful mural of clouds, sky and cherubs on the ceiling over the master suite's sunken tub, as well as an arbor and rose garden over two walls of the dining room.

With the major face lift on their one-time cottage complete, the Stems are happy to take a break from the dust, paint and labor and spend some time enjoying the results.

But as Lisa points out, the guest house could still use some work. "That's our next renovation," she said.

Pub Date: 11/08/98

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