Along the railroad tracks in Southwest Baltimore near Washington Boulevard, the grass grows high amid broken glass. Trains still blow their whistles at the crossings here as they roll slowly through. Whole blocks of brick houses lining side streets beyond the tracks are boarded up, emblematic of a sadly depressed and forgotten area.
Still, pockets of homes are set off Hollins Ferry Road here, many tucked onto an acre or so of trees and vegetation. James Serio's piece of paradise is one such parcel.
"I call it my oasis," he said, from the front porch step of his circa 1900 Victorian farmhouse. Two large crepe myrtle trees shade the fenced-in front yard. The serious landscaping, he says, is in the backyard.
Situated on 1 1/4 acres, the two-story, vinyl-sided home has been in Serio's family since his great-grandparents lived there.
"I inherited the house free and clear," noted Serio, a 42-year-old hairdresser, "and the first thing I did was take a $110,000 loan against it."
That was in 1992. His next move was to gut the house completely, the first step in a slow renovation.
"Thank God for dads and uncles," he laughed. "They did all the work, while I paid for the materials."
Serio estimates he spent another $200,000 to complete the renovation, including new drywall and insulation, electrical and air conditioning, landscaping, a game room addition and new furniture.
The biggest surprise beyond the home's threshold is an art deco decor that is in complete contrast to the exterior. A stairway to the second floor has glass block walls where a railing might be.
Dining room and kitchen occupy the front and rear of the home's east side. A sleek, 10-foot-long black lacquer table dominates the dining room. Eight matching chairs accommodate Serio's dinner guests, while food is presented on a buffet fashioned of black glass. Walls, as well as carpeting, are a soft shade of gray. Splashes of color are provided with framed posters and a large silk flower arrangement on the buffet.
By contrast, the kitchen is a study in green and white. White laminate cabinets and a center island are crowned with deep green laminate countertops. The backsplash is wallpapered in green and white stripes and all appliances are white. Green shades hang on double glass doors opening to the back porch, deck and garden beyond.
Serio's double-tiered deck boasts wrought iron and thickly padded lounge furniture. A hot tub occupies one corner, where ivy clings to the lattice fence that surrounds it, providing privacy. A large pond brimming with lily pads takes center stage in a garden filled with tall maple trees, clumps of sea grass and Adirondack-style furniture. A pergola with hanging vines rests amid cement statues.
"This is truly a hidden part of the city," Serio said, reflecting on the garden that he designed himself.
Back indoors, the west side of the house is a study in beige. The living room walls are painted with a faux finish that looks like tan marble with taupe veins. Two beige leather love seats rest on large leopard print rugs over beige carpeting. A two-way gas fireplace warms the living room as well as the room beyond. This last room is sparsely furnished and contains Serio's wide-screen TV.
Of all the renovations (which include three upstairs bedrooms decorated in black, white and gold), Serio is most proud of his first- floor game-room addition.
A hexagon, the room has been outfitted with a full-sized bar on one wall, with white birch cabinets.
"This is where I splurged and used Corian," Serio said indicating the counter top, where hundreds of bottles are lined against a glass backsplash. A variety of glassware sits in the windowed cupboards and on glass shelves.
The room, well lighted by three large arch-shaped windows, also includes game tables with multicolored chairs, a pinball machine and original Baltimore cityscape paintings by Robert McClintock and Susan Webster.
From the serenity of the front porch, where birdsong and an occasional train whistle are the only sounds, Serio looks across the street to another house he bought in the mid-'90s and currently rents out. He breaks the silence with a laugh.
"I like that I'm so close to downtown. I got it good."
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