The homeowner of Strawberry Hill, a historic property in Sparks, Maryland, wasn’t looking to buy a house when she placed a call to a real estate agent in the summer of 2001. “I was just curious,” she says. “There was something in my mind, nagging me, telling me that I had to see the house.”
At the time, rumor was circulating that someone wanted to buy the house and its 27 acres, and replace it with five luxury homes. With this in mind, the soon-to-be owner toured the 18th century house with early 19th-century additions. “I kept telling myself: ‘I’m not buying this house. I have a house!’” she recalls. But after walking through the home, she said just three words: “I’ll take it!”
Thus started an adventure that would mostly wind to a close in late 2009. “I was really looking for someone who had a vision, because I was realizing that I wanted to do what was right for the house, to restore it and revive it for posterity.”
After reading a story about a home restoration done on a house of the same age, the homeowner made a call to the article’s featured designer, Susan Bank of Jenkins Baer Associates in Baltimore. “My first impression was that I was very interested in working on another historic restoration,” says Bank. “My next thought was that we needed to get Jeff Penza, the architect, involved to have this done right.”
At the same time, the homeowner was also consulting with Chad Neal of Whispering Meadows, Inc., who had done some earlier stone restoration on the property. “Chad was incredibly knowledgeable about all facets of the work needed on the house and the grounds,” explains the homeowner. “I felt that I had found the right person to entrust with bringing the house back to life.”
Together in 2004, the homeowner, Bank, Penza, and Neal formatted a plan to move the project forward. “Everything fell into place after we assembled this team,” says the homeowner. “I finally felt like I could step back and let the artists create.” And so they did.“The best way for me to describe the house was ‘a diamond in the rough’,” says Penza. “The whole property was overgrown. Not terrible, but not great, and in need of a lot of TLC! Our biggest challenge was to take a house from the 18th century and install technology from the 21st century seamlessly.”
Neal started with a full structural review and Penza worked on the design, while Bank and the homeowner painstakingly selected the paint colors for every room in the house. “I needed all of the paint colors selected ahead of time so that I could match the sprinkler head covers for each room,” Neal explains. “This was the right time to update all of the systems in the house, from fire and security, to the proper wiring for the current technology, and hopefully, any technology and electronics that the homeowner might want to run in the future.”
The brain of these updates is a smart house system designed by Gramophone that runs the lighting, audio, video, computer, heating and cooling, and security systems for the house and outbuildings. Installed in what used to be the basement kitchen of the original house, the system occupies most of that space and facilitates intuitive control over the property’s major systems.
Even though the renovations were nowhere near complete, Bank needed to work on the layout of each room so that electrical outlets and lighting could be installed in the right places. “I went through and cataloged all of the homeowner’s furniture, rugs, lamps, and large accessories,” says Bank. “I measured and photographed every piece in order to see what they had, and what they still needed. It was also important to predetermine our lighting needs before all of the wiring was done.”
As with any historic restoration, there were structural issues that needed to be addressed. The original part of the house, from about 1700, was essentially a 12 by 14 foot, two story box with stone walls more than 30 inches thick. “This part of the house had some scary wiring, and most of the runs [for wiring] were on the house’s exterior,” says Neal.
The wiring in the rest of the house wasn’t much better. “Each room had maybe one receptacle,” says Neal. To satisfy historic aesthetics and modern electrical needs, the first step was to remove all of the interior trim and redo the plaster. “After removing the trim, we were able to cut channels in the stone behind the trim in order to update and upgrade the wiring throughout the house.”
Neal and Penza also encountered another challenge when creating and refining the sunroom. “When we started, it wasn’t a sunroom, but a poorly enclosed porch,” Penza says. “We needed to find a way to convert it to an interior room that could be used all year round.” Waterproofing was a big issue, but so was temperature control. “Because we were dealing with a fixed space, we needed to hide the duct work under the floor,” Penza recalls. “We needed to integrate the radiant heat and the room’s own zone climate to cool the room in the sunny summer months.”
Other major structural issues added up to a leaky, crooked house. A fire in the chimney of a third floor fireplace had damaged a section of the roof, which needed to be repaired before anything could be added to the interior. “A support beam on the first floor had been cut in the 1950s to allow for the addition of an HVAC system,” Neal says. “This caused the whole center of the house to sink three inches.” While jacking up the house brought the floors and walls back closer to level, every door in the house still needed to be repaired or replaced, because even though they had been shaved down, they still wouldn’t close. In the basement, Neal had to sandblast layers of white wash from the stone walls before he could repair the mortar and waterproof the foundation. “After the sandblasting, I had to take the jackhammer to the stone floor…in order to get an eight foot ceiling clearance.”
Acquiring materials that would complement the original house wasn’t going to be easy, so Neal started to put out feelers to find everything from quarry stone that would match the house and walls on the property to floorboards and hardware from razed houses and barns in Glen Rock and Hanover, Pennsylvania. Neal consulted Walter Reynolds from Walter Reynolds Design in Upperco, Maryland to plan the landscape design for the property. “[The homeowners] were very concerned about maintaining the integrity of the house and some elements like existing trees,” remembers Reynolds. Following Reynolds’ plans, the team “re-graded the front of the house, and built the necessary walls for the formal and informal gardens that you see now,” says Neal.
Reynolds also designed the pool and its surrounding landscape and adjacent Ha-Ha wall. “The slope of the house is gradual out to the meadow and the Ha-Ha wall separates the meadow from the lawn area without having a visual element obstruct your view,” Reynolds explains.
Another view that was giving Neal some trouble was the vista from the side window down the hillside. “The deep drop off of the side of the house was difficult,” says Neal. “It’s a 45-foot drop that we needed to landscape in a way that would be as maintenance free as possible.” Neal’s solution was to plant the drop with native plants, using nearly 4,000 gallon-sized plants, and a variety of plant plugs on the steepest locations. “We had the guys doing the planting actually rappelling down the hillside!”
“We spent the first year just reviewing and repairing what needed to get done, and to make the house structurally sound,” Neal says. “After that, we were finally able to look at what the homeowner wanted to do.” One of the more unique requests was to convert the old well room, about 10-feet below the basement into a wine cellar, complete with a forged wrought iron stairway and custom wine racks, crafted out of mahogany by Neal himself. “This area, and the connecting wine tasting room were one of my favorite parts of the project,” says Penza. “It is such a unique space, and a great addition to the basement.”
The homeowner is extremely pleased that she placed this project in such capable hands. “Chad and the team have allowed this house to talk,” she says. “And it continues to speak its own language.” There will always be smaller scale jobs to do on the property, but with this first major step completed, the homeowner feels immersed and surrounded by beauty. “Everyday I look around, and can honestly say that everything was done just right!”
Amy Feinstein is a frequent contributor to ChesapeakeHome.
Gramophone: gramophone.com or 410-308-1650 (Timonium) and 410-381-2100 (Columbia)
Jenkins Baer & Associates: jenkinsbaer.com or 410-727-4100
Penza Bailey Architects: penzabailey.com or 410-435-6677
Walter Reynolds Design: 410-239-8831
Whispering Meadows, Inc.: whisperingmeadowsinc.com or 410-357-5836