Union Square couple turns a townhouse that had been apartments into an art showcase Walking through the spacious, ornately decorated rooms of Debby and Francis Rahl's Victorian townhouse overlooking Union Square, it is hard not to gasp at a sales price of $60,000.
"The neighborhood was a lot different back then," said Debby Rahl, noting they had bought the home in Southwest Baltimore in 1980. "There were a number of vacant [houses] and multifamily rentals. And more crime."
Still, Debby Rahl, who grew up in the northeast neighborhood of Hamilton, didn't want to leave the city. Both she and her husband, Francis "Fran" Rahl, saw potential in the spacious three-story home with a 75-foot-long backyard.
"This house needed serious work," she said. "I look at the 'before' pictures and say, 'What were we thinking?'"
The house, 22 feet wide and 75 feet deep, had been broken into apartments. Most of the windows were in very bad shape.
But the couple were steadfast in their desire to transform the broken-down property into the home of their dreams, doing most of the work themselves.
Fran Rahl, a 62-year-old manager at Northrop Grumman Corp., estimates that the couple have spent at least $150,000 over the past 26 years. They replaced the heating system and windows, installed a new kitchen, added a second-floor bath and laundry room, built a first-floor rear addition, and turned the backyard into a garden retreat.
It is from the rear addition, which they refer to as the "CDA" or casual dining area, that the garden can be best enjoyed. Bullfrogs in the pond outside the door croak loudly. Abundant shade is provided by a flowering plum tree, an Eastern red bud and a Kousa dogwood. Large fiberglass statues are reminiscent of an Italian villa. It is here in the garden that the bustle of city life seems remote.
The kitchen is in precise contrast to the cool, mint-colored walls of the rear addition. Taxicab yellow walls complement a decor that includes tall maple cabinets and white appliances.
The combined talents of the couple are most evident in the dining room. Fran Rahl designed and built in wooden cabinets that fill the wall on either side of a marble fireplace. There, he created an elaborately carved mantel. Debby Rahl then took over with faux painting to create a rich cherry finish on all the woodwork. A stylized portrait of a Harlequin, done in oil on paper, matted in red and hung in a carved gilt frame, hangs above the mantel.
That piece is just one of a vast collection throughout the first floor with a promise of an equal number on the second and third levels. "I recently counted a total of 225 original pieces, including the lithographs," Fran Rahl said.
"We would never find a place big enough for all our stuff," his wife added, noting not just the artwork but the Victorian furniture, most of them antiques, collected over the years.
The large front parlor with its 12-foot ceiling is a Victorian showcase. Two large front windows are crowned with a carved, solid walnut cornice that includes a pier mirror to the floor between the windows. The unit was taken from an old house.
A cut crystal chandelier hangs from an elaborate plaster medallion in the room's center. Its globes and prisms bounce soft light onto a rose marble fireplace and onto a suite of Victorian love seats and chairs covered in rose-colored damask.
Attention to detail and period is prevalent throughout the second level, with 19th- century armoires, tin ceiling tiles and carved walnut beds.
The third-level den, with a 16-foot cathedral ceiling, has a front wall of bookshelves and the home's only working fireplace.
When asked if they would ever leave their dream home, even if they were too old to climb steps, Fran Rahl answered, "We have a spot picked out for ... an elevator."
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Here are Fran Rahl's suggestions for renovating an old home:
For homes in historic districts, have plans for all exterior work approved by the local preservation authorities.
Be sure to have a sound roof and gutters.
Be sure you will really use a rooftop deck. They are expensive and can complicate roof repairs.
Replace old wiring, even if an electrician tells you it's OK if undisturbed. Eventually it will be disturbed.
Replace old plumbing.
Be prepared to spend more money than you expected, even if you can do the work yourself.