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37 rooms make for one happy home; Makeover: Halfway between Baltimore and Ellicott City, the one-time Relay Hotel has been transformed into a delightful home with rooms to spare.


When Ray Chism went house hunting in 1972, he was living in a rowhouse in Arbutus with his four children and he needed more living space.

And did he ever find the answer to his needs.

What he found was a 37-room house that was originally the Relay Hotel. Built less than 50 feet from the train tracks, the 100-year-old building once served as the "relay" house, so named for the town itself because it's the halfway point between Baltimore and Ellicott City. It's also the place where teams of horses were switched or relayed to relieve tired horses that had been hauling train cars and carriages along the tracks.

"When I first bought it, there were old stables out back where the garage is now," Chism said, adding that the $28,000 sale price sounded like a good deal.

"I bought it a week before Agnes hit [in 1972], and after the hurricane went through, I had no electricity and 10 feet of water in the basement," he said.

But having survived Agnes, he put his mind to renovating the house. "I had no tools, no construction experience," Ray said, chuckling at his own naivete. "My father thought this was such a big mistake that he didn't talk to me for three months."

The building had been turned into four apartments, and nearly everything had to be torn out and replaced.

"All of the old plaster on the walls had to come down," Chism said. "I carried hundreds of buckets of plaster out of this house." All of the plumbing and electric wiring had to be redone, two separate air-conditioning systems and furnaces had to be installed, and the entire house had to be insulated.

The home's 52 windows had been painted shut, and Chism stripped them down, being sure to preserve the wooden trim and the old rippled glass panes. He estimated that he has spent at least $150,000 on the house, but he's proud that he never hired professionals. "Everything here was done by me and my family," he said.

He credits his wife, Diana, with the layout and design of their long galley kitchen. "He was anxious for me to move in here, so he pretty much let me have free rein," she said with a chuckle.

"When I met him, this place was completely empty except for a couch and a television. It was nothing like it is now."

After they married, the couple lived in Diana's house with her two sons in Glen Burnie, and the entire family came over and worked on the house during evenings and weekends.

The couple moved into the house two years ago and occupy nine rooms on the first floor. The other six first-floor rooms are rented as an apartment. Ray's son and grandsons occupy all of the 12 rooms on the second floor, while the 10 rooms on the third floor are storage space.

Ray Chism finds it all very convenient.

"Our living space is all on one level and it's small, so it's easy to maintain and keep tidy," he said.

Ray also praises Diana's interior decorating skills.

"I'm colorblind, so she picked out all the colors and draperies," he said, adding that his wife chose pastels and light colors because the house is naturally dark.

"When I first came here, everything on the inside was pink and the outside was painted a sickening shade of green," he said. "Even though I'm colorblind, I could see it was awful."

The couple designed and installed stained-glass windows over three of the doors that read "Parlor," "Dining" and "Bar," signifying the rooms' uses when the house was a hotel. "The hotel bar was here until Prohibition," Ray said. "Then they converted it into an ice cream parlor."

The Chisms refinished the built-in china cabinets in the dining room, and an assortment of samplers fill one of the walls. "My mother sewed all of these," Diana said. "She recently passed away, so it means a lot to me to have these here."

The home's three working fireplaces were sealed when Ray bought the house. He uncovered them and pulled bricks from a water tank behind the house that once supplied the trains. The mottled bricks lend a historical and warm touch to the fireplaces.

He also made and hung the sign over the porch steps that reads "Relay Hotel" as a reminder of the home's original purpose.

Train buffs have asked the couple to turn the house into a bed and breakfast. "They said they'd love to sit on the porch and watch the trains rumble by," Diana said. Ray's given that some thought, and said he's also considered opening a small history museum or even turning the barroom back into an ice cream parlor.

Pub Date: 2/28/99

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