Karen and Ed Garono have seen a lot of houses. The couple work in real estate, and they often renovate homes on the side. But they had never taken on a project quite like their current home — a century-old Edwardian on a corner lot with a view of the water in downtown Havre de Grace.
When the couple first encountered the house in 2015, it bore little resemblance to today’s Grey Lady — the name they gave it after yearlong renovations. The stately porch was hidden behind overgrown shrubbery, the yellow and green paint was peeling and the interior was weighed down by relics of the 1960s — heavy lace curtains, blue shag carpet and wood paneling.
“There was a house down the street that was turn-key that was on the market,” Karen Garono, 63, said. “But [Ed] kept driving around this house saying, ‘Someone needs to put the love back into it.’ Because it was grand at one time.”
Karen wasn’t so sure. The Harford County natives were renting a condo and had just moved out of a house they built themselves on a 200-acre farm in Darlington. They knew that renovating the 3,000-square-foot home with four bedrooms, three full bathrooms, three stories and a basement would involve constant decision-making.
“Driving around the outside, I was a little nervous,” said Karen. “But as soon as I walked in the door I felt like I could make this beautiful again.”
They soon learned that the home had long belonged to a prominent doctor, his wife and their six children, a family the Havre de Grace community loved.
“People we talked to that came here when they were little have fond memories of [them] and all the fun they had in the house,” Karen said.
After purchasing the property from the doctor’s estate, the Garonos went to work, keeping the house’s importance to the community at the forefront of the restoration process. They hoped to update the functionality and style while preserving the historic charm.
Some repairs were hardly cosmetic: The house still had a style of electric wiring dating from at least the 1930s. On top of rewiring, Ed took charge of changing every inch of plumbing.
When the house needed new windows, Karen paid attention to detail. She had contractors place the decorative pulls from the old windows into the new ones to keep the historic touch.
“We repurposed anything that we could or donated it to Second Chance in Baltimore City. Ed took all the windows down there,” Karen said.
In keeping with her theme of reuse, Karen also bought indoor and outdoor lighting fixtures from Second Chance, a nonprofit that resells salvaged home and building materials.
Throughout the house, the Garonos repaired the plaster, restored the original wood floors and replaced the radiators with modern heat and air conditioning. Certain rooms required more attention.
“The kitchen and the bathrooms are our two favorites because we created them from the studs out,” Ed, 65, said.
Indeed, the galley kitchen that was once hidden behind a wall is now a spacious great room with a large island, marble counter tops and a La Cornue stove that commands attention. The stove took several months to arrive from France and came with a chef who showed them how to use it.
The oven is not the only French touch. The house is filled with scripted patterns, Eiffel towers and wall art inspired by Karen’s travels to the country. Most of her decorations are consignment, she said, and she switches looks often, although some features are constant.
“I knew I wanted this black-and-white checkered floor. I love crystal. I love pearls. I wanted white cabinets. I wanted marble,” said Karen.
Luckily for her, the house came with several crystal lighting fixtures. She had them rewired and installed them in the dining room. She also added four crystal chandeliers in the kitchen to accompany the existing one in the dining room that dates at least to the 1930s.
In the upstairs bathroom, the Garonos created a vintage look with a 1930s-style arch over the tub. They replaced the aging tile floor with fresh tiles that wouldn’t usurp the antique feeling.
Restoring curb appeal was an equally delicate balance, but the overgrown bushes crowding the entrance were the first to go.
“I came home and the guys said to me, ‘Ms. Karen, when all that was taken down the whole house breathed,’ ” Karen said. “Some people told us they didn’t know the house was there — that’s how much stuff was growing in front of it.”
In a Havre de Grace bookstore, a shopkeeper showed Karen a book containing an early picture of her house. The Garonos used the picture to re-create the look of the original exterior.
Over the years, a turret on the front of the house had rotted away and been removed. So the Garonos rebuilt it, adding another French touch — a copper-painted ball on the top of the turret to mimic the original one on the upper roof. They also replaced all 21 columns on the porch. When the insurance company wouldn’t cover the house without railings on the porch, they switched companies.
“It’s a historic house, so we were trying to keep it that way. We were trying to preserve its authenticity,” Ed said.
Then, it was time for paint — a choice that cemented the house’s new identity.
“When we painted her grey I just had to name her the Grey Lady — because she’s so elegant-looking. She’s got such a presence,” Karen said.
Once the Garonos moved in in May 2016, they still had to redo the 40-year-old concrete pool — a $30,000 expense. It had been sitting covered and full for many years.
And there are still projects on deck, like finishing attic bedrooms, adding more landscaping and building a detached garage — a feature the Garonos miss from their home in Darlington.
The Garonos joke about teaching the public that someone lives in the house: The neighbors don’t cut through the lawn anymore. Although the Garonos’ only child lives in Baltimore, the couple often share the house with friends, family and the occasional uninvited guest.
“One night we had a few friends over. We were all in here and all of a sudden I heard the front door open and I didn’t recognize the people,” said Karen. “I walked over to them and they thought it was a bed-and-breakfast. They wanted to know if we had any vacancies.”
The couple laughs about the fishbowl effect of a corner lot. People often photograph their house or walk up the porch to tell them how lovely it is. But they don’t mind the attention: Sharing the house with the community is what it’s all about. Through the Grey Lady, the Garonos have left their mark on Havre de Grace, while the town imprints on them.
“We have the beautiful lighthouse, we have the water, we have water sports. It’s really fun,” Karen said. “You can sit out on the porch at 4 o’clock in the morning and you’re always going to see somebody either running, walking their animals, boats coming in, fishermen coming in. It’s almost like living in a little beach town.”
It’s also changed the way the Garonos live. In Darlington, they drove half an hour to get to the grocery store. Now, they walk to the water and to downtown shops and restaurants.
“People really want to come live here now. We hear that all the time. There is some kind of attraction to Havre de Grace that is a fairly recent phenomenon,” Ed said. “I’m not saying we started it, but we’re a product of whatever’s going on here. We felt it, too.”