Like a lot of people who live in New York City, interior designer Loch McGaechy likes to escape the crowds and grime whenever he can.
But unlike those who are heading to beaches, mountains or rural retreats, when McGaechy loads his dogs and his luggage into his station wagon and heads south, his destination is a simple story-and-a-half frame cottage in the Woodbrook area of Baltimore County.
He discovered the house about a year and a half ago, after the agent who was showing it hesitated even to take him inside. Although it is surrounded by gated estates, the house was tiny, and had not been well-treated in previous years. "It looked like a dormitory," McGaechy recalls.
He did look, of course, "and then the neighborhood came into play." The house, though secluded (it backs up to the Elkridge golf course), is not far from shopping malls and gourmet groceries. "It couldn't have been more perfect."
It helps that McGaechy, 51, is no stranger to Baltimore -- he spent his teen years here, in Original Northwood, with his family. Two brothers still live here. Back then, he says, "I couldn't wait to get out."
But three or four years ago, he began visiting, doing some research on his family history. "And I got to like it more and more." The Baltimore of the '60s, he found, is not the Baltimore of today.
As for the house (four rooms on the first floor, with a bedroom and tiny bath upstairs in the eaves), McGaechy's imagination and resources have given this modest dwelling an interior that is appropriately clean-lined and charming while simultaneously being startling and idiosyncratic.
There's no clutter, and definitely no country kitsch. What there is, is art. While colors throughout the house are mostly neutrals, every wall surface, including the tiny hallway to the kitchen and den, is a gallery of its own. Abstract and representational paintings, African masks and reliquaries (grave ornaments), photographs, pottery and sculpture all find a place. "For me, the art comes first," McGaechy says. "When I saw the house for the first time, my first thought was, 'How much wall space do I have?'" For such a small place, the answer is, quite a lot.
When you enter the house, you are greeted in the first room, which McGaechy uses as the dining room, by a huge painting by New York abstract expressionist Michael Goldberg. On the reproduction English country table, there's an 1800s chandelier, dripping with crystals, that McGaechy uses as a candelabra. Although it's not his usual taste, he says, he likes it because it's American-made, with American glass.
The next room, the modest living room, is dominated by a painting by Boston artist Catherine McCarthy that McGaechy says tells the story of her relationship to the Catholic church. The tall, narrow, post-modern painting has three parts; the middle is a priest whose feet and head are cut off by panels at the top and bottom. The top panel evokes the historic, imperial church, with a centurion and a serpent, among other motifs. The lower panel depicts two pairs of battered, empty, work boots, delicately rendered. One of the first paintings McGaechy saw as a child was of a pair of work boots by Vincent Van Gogh at the Baltimore Museum of Art. "The image never left me," he says, so when he saw the McCarthy painting, he was immediately drawn to it.
When the sun shines on an adjacent wall, an early 19th century Venetian mirror over the dark chocolate-brown leather sofa casts prisms of light all over the room. Some of them fall on the metalwork sculptures made in Africa to scare bad spirits away from burial sites. The pieces are made from pots and pans and other utensils that well-meaning Westerners tried to introduce into African domestic use. Most of the figures in his collection are female. "These are my girls," he says. "We talk a lot."
Although he never felt that artistic endeavor was his destiny, art has always been a constant in his life, McGaechy says. When he escaped Baltimore for New York, he found that everything he did drew him closer to design. He's been in the business now for more than 25 years, with partner Robert San Filippo. Their clients are a diverse and peripatetic lot who often stick with the designers through a number of lifestyle changes. "We have clients we did first homes for, and now that they've become empty nesters, they're downsizing, or doing second [vacation] homes."
"We're very picky," he says. "We want to keep the business about us -- small. We try not to have more than 5 or 6 projects going on, depending on what stage they're in."
McGaechy's godmother and often traveling companion, Baltimorean Billie Conkling, recalls McGaechy, at age 15, requesting a visit to Philadelphia's Rodin Museum. "Obviously there was a real desire and interest there."
Before McGaechy got his hands on it, Conkling says, the house was pretty "funky." Now, she says, "I think it's extremely creative and extremely expressive."
One of the things McGaechy concentrated on in the small structure was keeping things simple. He made only minor structural changes, among them closing off an awkwardly placed door in the kitchen. He also turned part of the kitchen into a laundry area. He still plans to replace the cabinets -- some day -- and to redo the tiny bath upstairs. "It's a good idea not to overload" the decoration, he says. "Small spaces need to be clutter-free."
Above the kitchen table -- a French Country style from Crate & Barrel that McGaechy calls indestructible - are two hanging metal light fixtures of a type not normally found in a residence. At the lighting store, McGaechy says, he told the salesman he wanted "those B movie, film noir lights, where you can only see the shadow of the metal grate underneath and it's swinging back and forth in the dark."
The den, next to the kitchen, is home to McGaechy's collection of African masks. A couple are museum quality, McGaechy says, but the rest come from street markets.
He is drawn to African art for several reasons, he says. First, artists of the early 20th century, such as Picasso, were greatly influenced by African art, so the impact has been felt throughout the century in "modern" art, a style McGaechy enjoys. He also likes the fact that the objects are generally simple and are in regular use. "It's more of a living art," he says.
Both the kitchen and the den have doors to a narrow porch running the back width of the house. It overlooks a steep downward slope and then a hill that separates McGaechy's property from the golf course. The setting is so rural that there's lots of wildlife, including a black snake McGaechy has named Oscar. Although black snakes are docile and harmless to people (they mostly eat mice, after crushing them to death), McGaechy says he gives Oscar plenty of personal space.
The domestic animals, beagles named Wally, 6, and Kate, 4, at first were somewhat wary of the openness, and would sit on the porch observing, he says. But now they love the freedom to run around the fenced-in yard.
For his part, McGaechy treasures the friendliness and generosity of people here. "I'm at that stage in my life when it's hard to live in New York - and it's getting harder," he says. "I've lived for 23 years in the same building in New York, and I know my next-door neighbor to say hello to. I don't think I even know her name. But people here I've known for five minutes have become good friends."
So that drive, seven hours here and back, passes quickly, McGaechy says. "Especially when you have two dogs in the car you're trying to control." The thought makes him laugh. "Really, I just did this for the dogs."