If Alice in Wonderland hired herself out as an interior designer, with the dormouse as her assistant, she might conceivably come up with something like the house of Holly Tominack and Joe Bienvenu.
For most of us, home is shelter. For Tominack, 33, and Bienvenu, 37, it's their playground -- a playground decorated with checkerboards and stripes, stars and hearts, thrift-store finds and little shrines.
"I'm always finding things in Dumpsters that interest me," says Tominack with a laugh. "I guess I require a lot of stimulation. A lot of color, a lot of things."
The trapeze in the living room is a clue that this isn't like any other rowhouse in Little Italy.
"Sometimes it's good to hang upside down," she explains. "It changes your perspective."
Then there's the ballroom strung with stars and a disco ball, the recording studio, the master bathroom with a Jacuzzi, and the state-of-the-art kitchen -- but no central heating. (Heat is provided in some rooms by wood-pellet-burning stoves.)
The interior doors have swinging cat doors cut into them for Sportva and Charlie, two enormous domestic shorthairs, and Stella Luna, a tuxedo cat.
"A lot of people come in and say, 'Wow, you guys are crazy,' " says Bienvenu, whose day job is as a psychiatrist at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions. "But a lot come in and say, 'This is great.' "
You've heard of the fabulous Little Italy mansion that's for sale for $4.2 million? This is the other Little Italy mansion, a through-the-looking-glass, Magical Mystery Tour version. It's not for sale.
The structure of the house itself, all 10,000 square feet and three stories of it, has a lost-in-a-dream quality -- with the front door on one street and the back door on another one. But the two streets aren't parallel. That means rooms lead into a maze of other, smaller rooms, and none of them has four right angles. You never come out quite where you expected to be.
There are 23 rooms, says Tominack. "Oh, shoot," she corrects herself as she counts. "There's that other little room behind the freight elevator. Twenty-four." But you get the feeling she may have lost a room or two.
Even the city gets confused. The tax bills for their garage, which has a separate street number, were sent to the backdoor address, and the couple never got them. They found out by accident that their garage was up for auction because the bills hadn't been paid.
The garage houses a scooter and two BMW motorcycles: one is a touring bike and the other Tominack's commuting bike. Who says a lady librarian can't ride a motorcycle to work? In this case, to her job at Enoch Pratt Central.
"I was on a grand jury a few years ago," she explains, "and I realized you can die tomorrow. What do you want to do? I asked myself. I wanted to ride a motorcycle."
Bienvenu was against it at first. As a physician, he had worked in emergency rooms and knew how dangerous motorcycles can be. But over time he changed his mind. This month the two are off for a three-week trip to Colorado on the touring bike.
Taming 'monster home'
The couple never meant to buy a house this big. In 1999 they were living in an apartment in Fells Point. They loved the idea of moving to Little Italy, but knew it was a close-knit community.
"You can't buy here unless you know somebody or someone dies and leaves you a house," says Tominack.
The one house they found listed had only recently been converted into a residence -- and it was a work in progress, only three-quarters done. Built in 1895, the structure had been at various times a brewery, a mattress company, an oyster processing plant, a sewing machine warehouse and a Jos. A. Bank factory. Tominack found fabric in the freight elevator "so fragile it dissolved in my fingers." More recently the building had housed the Kohl Lamp Co.
Listed at $600,000, the property was out of their price range and much too much house for two people, but their real estate agent insisted they look at it anyway. The building would need a lot of work before they could move in, and it would be difficult to heat. It was not, in other words, love at first sight. They continued to look at other houses elsewhere in the city.
But here they are. "It was a collision of circumstances," says Bienvenu, which doesn't exactly explain why they ended up buying what he calls "the monster home." They liked the neighborhood. The previous owners cut the price almost in half, and the lure of so much room was too strong to resist.
"I'd lived in apartments so many years," he elaborates. "I dreamed of having space to do whatever I wanted."
The couple don't have to go to the gym to work out because the second-floor great room has, along with a sofa covered in velvet throws, a weight training system, a treadmill, an elliptical trainer, a stationary bike and a silver exercise ball that could be mistaken for a funky piece of art. It looks like a giant ball bearing.
One wall is covered in a mural done by Bienvenu's parents of a plantation near their home in Louisiana, where he's from.
"I don't really like it," his wife says. "It looks unfinished."
Sometimes, she adds, she has fantasies of covering it up with thick velvet curtains.
No matter. It's fairly unnoticeable because of the columns painted checkerboard black-and-white, the 56-inch television, the Oriental carpets and the band setup up on the stage against one wall. Bienvenu is a drummer in two rock bands, Nine Bob Note and Zipper. The bands practice and do some recording here, and play in the area.
A little apart from the rest is a shrine with a collection of religious art, candles and icons. Tominack, who grew up in LaPlata and was one of 12 children, was brought up Catholic.
She has an obvious affection for her religious heritage. "I find the objects comforting," she says.
True to form, when Bienvenu and Tominack hired someone to help them with the renovations, they decided on a "functional artist" who plays guitar in jam sessions with Bienvenu, not a traditional contractor.
"Joe and Holly are very adventuresome," the artist, Marco Duenas, says. "They give me creativity and freedom. These guys are very open-minded."
At the moment, he's converting the back of the first floor into an apartment, which will eventually help pay for further work on the house.
On each floor, there's at least one normal room. On the first, it's a guest room and bath off the foyer. On the second, it's a handsome kitchen with all the bells and whistles. (Of course, it's painted an eye-popping orange-red and decorated with lots of whimsical tchotchkes.)
Bienvenu's office is also on this floor, and Tominack's costume room, where she stores the vintage clothing she collects and where she sews fanciful costumes of sequins, velvet, lace and tulle. She likes to dress up, and the couple are involved in Fluid Movement, a Baltimore-based performance arts group. They also regularly throw costume parties, cabarets and balls.
On the third floor, there's a comfortable master bedroom done in surprisingly muted colors; but what you notice is the ballroom where the parties are held, including a high school prom for adults once a year. Guests wear vintage prom dresses and tuxedos, dance to old rock 'n' roll, and pose for Polaroid pictures with their dates.
"It's fun to be a grown-up, dress up, go out to dinner before our prom and look at the kids [before their proms] looking at us like we were crazy," Tominack says.
In fact, she adds, "It's a lot of fun to be me."
Thrifty tips for a home makeover
When you don't have unlimited funds, it takes courage to take on a monster house, as owner Joe Bienvenu calls his, and turn it into a home. Here are some tips from his wife, Holly Tominack:
* Use the library. People tend to overlook the vast resources available for free. There are how-to books for designing, building, decorating and weatherproofing as well as the Maryland state codes, consumer information and lots more.
* DIY! (do it yourself)
* Salvage materials whenever possible. Objects found at thrift stores, flea markets, yard sales and demolition sites and in trash bins can be used to make your house unique.
* When you find an object that speaks to you, especially if you can't figure out why, buy it and add it to your decor. Its mysterious appeal will reveal itself over time and delight you longer than a generic decorative object you buy because it obviously matches the stuff you already have.
* Be patient. Don't try to do everything at once. Be prepared for it to take years to finish your house exactly the way you want it instead of settling instantly for the quick fix.