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Newly rich build castles by the river

THE BALTIMORE SUN

To the educated eye, Martin Fisher's 16,000-square-foot mansion high above the Severn River will suggest pre-Renaissance Normandy, with its steep roof lines, antique French furnishings and soaring Gothic cathedral window.

But the inside will scream state-of-the-art Silicon Valley.

For high-speed Internet access there will be Cat. 5 wiring and RJ45 jacks. And for rare off-line moments, a "media rack" will pipe in a Blockbuster's worth of movies to all seven bedrooms, accessible by stairs or elevator.

Such are the indulgences of a onetime Glen Burnie guy who rode the high-tech wave all the way to America Online's executive suite and is now lavishing millions on a sumptuous estate -- his third home -- on 20 wooded acres in Severna Park.

"Nice project," the earnest 52-year-old said with typical understatement on a recent visit to the cavernous foundation.

All along the waterfront in Anne Arundel County, people enriched by the new economy are carving out personal kingdoms by the bay and along the South and Severn rivers. Of 67 house sales over $1 million last year in greater Baltimore, more than half -- 35 -- were in Anne Arundel.

"It's the techies," said Annapolis real estate agent Charlie Buckley -- aka "Mr. Waterfront" -- who attributes 90 percent of his high-end business to high-tech buyers. "It's definitely a sea change in terms of where the money is coming from."

Not everyone is buying houses. Others, products of a culture that values newness and uninspired by the selection, are creating their own masterpieces, sometimes tearing down existing structures.

"I used to build for developers, doctors and lawyers," said Guy Pilli of Pilli Custom Homes, which will need 18 months to erect Chez Fisher. "Now it's all high-tech, pretty much."

While the blue bloods have long lived in splendor on the water, the recent arrivals cut a different profile.

Many are younger, for one thing: 30-somethings with small children in tow. Although they live like kings now, most sprang from decidedly humble roots. And they see nothing gauche about their enormous houses, some of which dwarf mansions of old.

The influx is raising eyebrows among the establishment, but county officials are delighted with the new neighbors -- all the more so if they bring their companies with them.

County Executive Janet S. Owens frequently talks about transforming the county into a high-tech hub and points to a handful of examples, such as Annapolis-based USinternetworking Inc.

Like Fisher, these high-tech moguls are bathing their waterfront houses in opulence, sometimes at a cost of more than $1 million for furnishings alone.

"The sky's the limit," said Arlene Critzos, president of Interior Concepts in Annapolis. "They want the ultimate of creativity, what no one else has. They want gadgets because they're techno people."

Everything is top of the line: Subzero and Gaggenau appliances in the kitchen, heated marble floors in the bathroom and projection-screen theaters in every house. A Bethesda software executive spent $450,000 just on his swimming pools -- one indoor, one outdoor -- because he wanted a fountain and custom limestone at his sprawling South River spread.

But what sets these houses apart are the gizmos, advanced enough to satisfy any technophile. Computers are as common as light switches, and all are linked to each other and the outside world.

"We have -- let me count them ... one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight computers, all networked together with high-speed Internet access," said entrepreneur-turned-venture capitalist Daniel Roche, 38, who lives on the Severn with his wife and four young children.

Automated lighting systems -- you switch the house to party mode" with the press of a button -- can be had for $60,000. At software executive Ted Bayer's $2.8 million house on the bay, a computer regulates the climate in each room.

On Fisher's "to buy" list -- along with the French antiques -- are super-thin plasma screens for digital TV and Web pads with wireless Internet connections -- a way of watching news or talking to friends once available only to the Jetsons and their sci-fi ilk.

For many, such extreme personal wealth would have been unthinkable a few years ago.

"I'm the American dream," said Roche, a Detroit native whose mother drove a school bus and whose father was an oft-unemployed autoworker.

"When I was growing up, the biggest year for my family's income was $12,000. I know because I did their taxes."

Nine years ago, at age 29, Roche started a business that built computer networks and software systems. In 1996 the company, Rapid Systems Solutions, was bought for $43 million by the Medaphis Corp.

That year he paid close to $2 million for his four-story house, trading up from one worth one-tenth that. Now he spends his days investing in high-tech companies -- when he's not shuttling his kids to T-ball games or private school.

Bayer, a 48-year-old with an unmistakable Baltimore accent, knows about small beginnings, too. He grew up in Canton when it was still blue-collar and bored kids shot arrows at rats scurrying around the wharves.

He fell into programming after college in the 1970s, and in 1982 he founded Syscom Inc., a rent-a-programmer operation.

In the early 1990s, though, with recession battering the company and his finances, he called a cramped Highlandtown apartment home. Some nights, dinner was a can of sardines.

"There was more than one friend and relative who said, 'Ted, why don't you get a real job?'" he said. "I felt if I could just hang in there, things would come around."

As the economy roared back to life in the mid-1990s, privately held Syscom did, too, beginning a heady rise that saw annual revenues approach $50 million. A few months ago Bayer and his wife, Joseline, left their three-bedroom brick rancher in Harford County for the mansion outside Annapolis -- with 12,000 square feet, panoramic bay view, seven bedrooms and breakfast "nook" that seats 10.

With enough room for an inn, Bayer's house will double as a sort of corporate retreat for Baltimore-based Syscom.

But much of the ground floor is reserved for his mother, who has her own apartment and separate entrance to the 7-acre grounds.

Some parents of high-flying techies have reservations about sharing in their children's wealth. Take the Fishers.

The Cape Cod-style house they bought near Glen Burnie back in the 1950s could fit into one wing. And unlike their son, they don't have a pool house, three-car "carriage house" or 43-foot powerboat at the pier.

While Martin Fisher Sr., a 79-year-old retired Navy man, marvels at his son's accomplishments, he may resist an offer of an apartment within the stone-and-brick mansion. He has qualms about leaping so many social strata in a single bound.

"It's going to be a humongous mansion, and when they're not around," he said, "the halls will be hollow."

On a soggy spring morning, Fisher -- a sailboat racing enthusiast who says he no longer follows the stock market -- stands at the site with his wife, Georgianna, teen-age son Todd and Pilli, the builder. He surveys the secluded spot, with the Severn gliding by some 100 feet below.

It's not what Fisher imagined in the 1970s when he went to work at the National Security Agency and learned computers. He hit pay dirt in 1995 when AOL bought Medior, a multimedia company he helped start, for $31 million.

Now a senior vice president at the online giant, Fisher will telecommute from Maryland some of the time, though he plans to maintain homes near San Francisco and AOL's Northern Virginia headquarters.

Leading a tour of the future basement, Pilli points to where the elevator, home theater and 2,500-bottle wine cellar will go.

Fisher likes the progress but not Pilli's news: Fiber-optic cable is not available, and a high-speed DSL Internet connection might not be, either.

Fisher sighs. "It'd be horrible if I didn't get high-speed Internet access," he says.

"Can't you get it over the phone?" Pilli asks.

The Fishers laugh. "Too slow," his wife says.

Pilli throws out another Internet option. The cable company could lay a cable line to the house, "But it will cost $10,000."

Fisher doesn't flinch. If that is what it takes, he says nonchalantly, "I'll just pay the $10,000."

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