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A small wonder

The Baltimore Sun

When Kevin-Douglas Olive first saw his rowhouse in Baltimore's historic Seton Hill, he wasn't certain he could live in a space only 9 feet wide.

"Good grief, it's narrow," he remembered thinking.

But as he and his partner passed the living room fireplace decorated with Delft tiles showing French hunting scenes, stood on cherry floors that once were decking on a ship and saw the upper-level skylights, Olive began to feel inspired.

As soon as he stepped out on the third-floor terrace, he was enthralled.

Spread below him was a brick interior courtyard completely enclosed by rowhouses, a communal secret garden alive with butterflies and blooming with colorful spring foliage.

"We saw the potential," Olive said. "We saw it from up top. It was this beautiful view. We were sold."

The two paid $69,000 for the house in 2002.

In addition to the outdoor features, Olive was attracted by the home's historic character and its location, which made it easy for both Olive, a teacher at Sudbrook Magnet Middle School, and his partner, now deceased, to commute to their jobs using public transportation.

But the early 19th-century house, last renovated in the 1970s, needed rehab. Olive spent an additional $54,000 on interior improvements to the 986-square-foot space plus $17,000 for a new roof, windows and deck.

Working with designer Joe Lazzaro and contractor Rick Ebling, Olive gutted the 1930s kitchen addition, which had been redone in 1970s harvest golds, and found some surprises.

There was no drywall behind the appliances, only cinder block or brick.

Olive added drywall and insulation and had the stove fan rerouted to vent to the outdoors.

He also moved the refrigerator, which was blocking the kitchen window, installed recessed lighting and IKEA cabinets and painted the walls a warm, rose-tinted terra cotta with slate gray wood trim. A faux pressed tin backsplash reminiscent of early-20th-century Baltimore rowhouses wraps around the room above the counter tops, while a faux granite linoleum floor in grays and earth tones tricks people into thinking it's real stone, Olive said.

Upstairs, Lazzaro attached four conventional interior doors in pairs to create a Japanese-style screen to create privacy for the front bedroom, which had been open to the steep, spiraling staircase.

The sleek screening fit the clean lines that Olive sought for the house's decor.

The piece de resistance, however, was the new bathroom. Olive removed the cramped bathroom on the second-floor landing and converted the back bedroom into a luxurious bathing chamber.

The bathroom has a double-bowled vanity, a separate water closet with a pocket door and an L-shaped double shower with a drying area. The shower, including the ceiling, is tiled entirely in ceramic that has a stone look.

What had been the bathroom became the only built-in closet in the home's finished areas and now houses a washer and dryer.

On the third floor, the master bedroom contains a wrought-iron bed that belonged to Olive's great-grandmother. A third-floor sitting area opens to the deck overlooking the courtyard. The deck is fenced with a 19th-century black wrought-iron railing, Olive said.

The unfinished basement is reached through a trap door in the dining room floor.

The houses were originally built to house workers who served the cloistered nuns at the old St. Mary's Seminary, the nation's first Roman Catholic seminary. The basements were connected to the seminary by tunnels so that workers could get in and out without disturbing the nuns. The basements in the racially mixed neighborhood were also rumored to have been part of the Underground Railroad, Olive said.

Today, you can still see the wall behind which a delivery man would dump the coal to heat the house.

While the home is too small for large-scale entertaining, as many as 40 people have fit in at once, Olive said. Also, the three stories make it feel larger than it is, he said.

"This is a great house for a single person or a couple," he said.

To save space, Olive has mounted a television on an arm that can retract. IKEA furniture has been a boon, not only for its clean lines but because it comes disassembled and can be easily carried up the 24-inch-wide stairs and then put together.

Olive marveled at the serendipity of his buying the house.

"Being a Francophile, a French teacher, of French descent and in the French quarter of Baltimore, it was a convergence of history," he said. "I feel I'm at home."

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