Farmhouse revamped as show house


Brian and Debbie Kemp might have the most beautiful home in Howard County, and they are living with their two toddlers in their barn.

The family volunteered to be displaced for four months while their century-old farmhouse in western Howard County was completely revamped by area designers. The house will open to the public Saturday as this year's Decorator Show House, a fund-raiser for Historic Ellicott City Inc.

The Kemps' friends and family were skeptical when the couple bought the Poplar Springs house in August last year with plans to fix it up. But Debbie Kemp said she told them "give us five years, and you won't recognize the place."

Because they participated in the show house, "it's only taken us a year. ... People can't believe the difference."

For now, Debbie Kemp, an assistant state's attorney in Baltimore County, and Brian Kemp, an aeronautical engineer at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in North Laurel, are living with their two daughters, ages 2 1/2 and 1, and all of their boxed belongings in a concrete-floored room under a hay loft.

"You can live anywhere for a few months," Debbie Kemp said. "My husband and I like to camp. ... That makes it easier."

They did build a bathroom in the barn. And they have their microwave oven and refrigerator, with lots of meals consisting of sandwiches, fresh produce and canned goods.

Meanwhile, their three-story house is fully outfitted with refinished floors; new carpet, paint and wallpaper; and a remodeled kitchen with lots of cupboards and new appliances -- all of which the Kemps will keep. They were consulted about designs so they wouldn't be stuck with anything they didn't like.

Show house visitors will also enjoy furnishings, window treatments, artwork, light fixtures and decorative details from plants to pillows to picture frames -- most of which are for sale -- as 20 designers use this opportunity to show off their skills and their wares.

Some rooms have plastic food to add a lived-in touch.

"We are not trying to re-create a museum," said Janet Kusterer, president of Historic Ellicott City. "We want to show people that historic houses can be very livable."

A dressed-up dining room with a round table, a bright children's room with vibrant artwork, a sitting room with a monkey theme and many other creative spaces should give visitors plenty of ideas.

Designers have to keep their clients in mind at all times, said Wanda Mathews, owner of WLM Designs in Ellicott City. But the show house "lets your artistic juices come out a little more."

Her master bedroom design, inspired by Italy, has a green, teal and rust color scheme and snazzy details, such as a large metal bed, a gold glaze over the paint on the walls and a bead-encrusted hanging lamp over a corner table and chairs. The entire room would cost $15,000 to $18,000 retail, she said.

In a family room designed by Beth Kittrell, visitors will immediately notice purple walls and Earl, a live parakeet. But the details make it more homey, such as heirloom lace and needlepoint patterns added to a love seat, vintage postcards sealed into a serving tray and old sheet music inside a clock.

"I try to make the house speak about what's important to the people that live there," Kittrell said.

Enalee Bounds started the show house tradition with a few antiques and lots of help from friends when she was president of Historic Ellicott City in 1984.

"Everyone loved it because we made it look like a family lived there," said Bounds, owner of Ellicott's Country Store.

This year, Bounds' contribution is an attic suite set up for a fictional Navy officer who has moved away but still comes home to visit. A bedroom and sitting room have nautical details, model ships and Naval Academy memorabilia, and a study is furnished with hunting and fishing items.

Bounds designed it in honor of 14 Navy men -- friends of her nephew -- who were killed at the Pentagon in the Sept. 11 attacks.

She said a healthy demand exists for home decor. After Sept. 11 and the recession, people are seeking a place to feel relaxed and safe, and they are not taking as many vacations, she said, so "they are spending the money redoing their homes."

Over the past several years, the show houses have drawn an average 6,000 people a year, Kusterer said. Last year, the event earned nearly $60,000 for the organization's programs, including the B&O; Railroad Station Museum, the Thomas Isaac Log Cabin and the Heritage Orientation Center.

The Kemps have invested a lot of their time and money in the event. With help from friends, Brian Kemp did much of the preliminary work, such as installing air conditioning, reframing plaster ceilings and putting a new roof on an outbuilding. He installed cabinets and built benches in the kitchen, and he and his wife pitched in around the house throughout the process.

The show house has uprooted their life all summer, but the Kemps say it has been worth it. From the beginning, they saw potential in their home where other people only saw the effort and expense.

"It's just a great old house and it deserves to be well taken care of," Debbie Kemp said.

The 18th annual Decorator Show House is open Tuesday through Sunday from Saturday to Oct. 20. The house is at 16398 Old Frederick Road, east of Mount Airy. Tickets are $12 at the door. For more information, call 410-461-6908 or go to

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