The first thing you notice when you enter the 14th-floor apartment at Highfield House is the view. The front door swings open, revealing a vista of Baltimore that is so close, so breath- taking, you feel for a moment as if teetering on a precipice. Then you gain your footing and begin to appreciate the spectacle laid out at your feet— the tree-lined streets and imposing rooftops of Guilford, the distant outline of Towson’s skyline and the far-off shadow of industrial cranes on the harbor’s waterfront.
The view wasn’t always this available. When the owners bought their original two-bedroom apartment in 1998, walls and hallways dissected the windows. When the one-bedroom apartment next door became available six years later, the owners leapt at the chance to buy it, break down the walls, and create the space of their dreams. “We love to entertain and I feel entertaining in one large space is more conducive, no matter how well the flow of a center hall colonial is,” explains the owner. “This way we can seat 10 or 12 and we’ve had easily 80 for stand-up cocktails.”
Coordinating cocktails for 80 may have been an easier feat than combining the two apartments. The couple lived in the one-bedroom apartment while work progressed next door, and then switched to the two-bedroom when the construction continued. On the first day of demolition the owners came home to find mounds of cinder block and one of the 10-foot-long windows completely cracked (which would have posed a hazard if it were to break entirely and plummet 14 stories). In addition, the apartments all have concrete floors and ceilings, which, while wonderful for soundproofing, make demolition and lighting a challenge. The couple found themselves routing power from unlikely electrical sources to light the apartment. Jones Lighting was called in to help place the pin-dot lighting for their artwork.
When the construction was complete, the two apartments were seamlessly melded into one and provided the social homeowners with a second kitchen for use at parties. Now, one enters into a small foyer where a guest bathroom is hidden behind doors that cleverly match those of the hall storage closets. In that bathroom, guests might be surprised to meet Lola, a scantily clad mannequin who lives in the shower.
From the foyer, a visitor is immediately drawn into the main living and entertaining space, where a dining area and three separate seating areas are delineated through furniture placement and subtle changes in ambience. With only a few exceptions— the first bedroom suite can be made private by pulling a silk curtain along a serpentine track— the entire apartment is open, running parallel to the 70-foot-long wall of windows that were part of Mies van der Rohe’s original design.
Rather than use an interior designer, the couple decided to handle the creation of the interior space themselves. “We have a knack for it,” the owner explains, noting that it was important to be able to imbue the apartment with their own personalities, as well as a mix of modern and antique items, purchased pieces and family heirlooms. “I feel a closeness to some of the older things that are part of my family, but moving into a building like this lends itself to a sleek look.” The owners kept many of the building’s timeless attributes like the tile in the bathrooms (given a contemporary face-lift through the addition of new vanities) and the original Mies van der Rohe kitchen.
The apartment is undeniably modern in its overtones. Take for example the first guest bedroom suite. Draw back the triple-tone silk curtain and one steps into a room of Feng Shui simplicity housing a minimalist platform bed and an elevated library where a Le Corbusier lounge serves as both an art element and a functional piece of furniture. The rooms are judiciously painted in an earthy scheme of grays, browns and reds, a selection meant to enhance the owners’ collection of both modern and historic art. There are contemporary landscapes by the likes of Anne Manley and Jim Bobick, as well as a framed antique linen from the 1928 Irish Derby and a hunt engraving from 1840.
Many of the furnishings in the apartment were purchased from Bloomingdale’s, while others were picked up for a song at consignment shops. It is this mixing and matching of eras that keeps the apartment from looking so modern that it becomes sterile. In fact, some of the owners’ collections create fun little surprises within this contemporary box, like the large central hall table that is covered in books. Look closely and you will find the owner’s small collection of antique silver cigarette cases, including one from 1912 that is engraved with the name of Prince Gallitzen. The very sleek built-ins that create a mod seating nook and bar feature a piece of a Japanese Ginza game that, while it dates from the 1920s, looks like modern art. Even the antique riding boots and Moroccan spice box (picked up on a trip abroad) that share this space can read “modern” when appreciated for their structural quality rather than their practical applications.
Despite its many collectibles and varied styles of furniture, the apartment never descends into chaos. There is a strong sense of controlled collecting, a feeling that the living spaces are well-orchestrated to reveal the personalities of the owners without sacrificing a feeling of Zen-like order. This is accomplished through the use of proportion and texture throughout. The mix of surfaces— leather club chairs, fur throws, mohair upholstery and marble-topped chests— softens the edges of the modernist design. For example, the birch parquet floors are allowed to function as artwork in their own right, covered only with Argentine accent rugs made of animal hide, an elemental contrast to the sleekness of the floors. Chairs from the 1920s soften the very modern glass-top dining room table. One of the seating areas features a custom-made sofa covered in Ultrasuede next to a glass Noguchi-style cocktail table. The seating area would be very sleek were it not for the presence of a 1920s grand piano. “It’s pretty beaten up,” says the owner, “but it is as much an art piece as a functional item.”
Unlike many homes where the homeowner must struggle to find a means to mask large flat-screen televisions, that was not a problem for these homeowners. “We’re not big TV people,” the homeowners explain, and it is evident in the noticeable absence of any technological behemoths. This couple’s heart is in entertaining and art, and it shows.
While some guests question whether the owners miss having a yard and access to the great outdoors, they say they are more than happy to look out on the large, beautiful homes of Guilford— but they don’t want the nuisance of maintaining such a home. “I like the loft-like quality of the apartment, the feeling of not being restricted by walls,” says the owner. “And it was fun to mix and match the things that are special to us. Your home is your personality.”