Pam Tate and Patrick Cook had lived in Federal Hill for 17 years, and they wanted to stay put. “I’m truly a city person,” says Tate. “I like the full mix of commercial and residential together, and Patrick’s business is in the neighborhood.” But with a 2-year-old and a baby on the way, they were outgrowing their rowhouse.
Though space is hard to come by in Federal Hill, Tate and Cook began their search for larger quarters optimistically in 1995. They found salvation only six blocks away, in the form of an unused parking garage. It had been a furniture warehouse in a former life, and before that, three rowhomes.
“We came down this street not thinking that we wanted to live on an alley street, but then found the width we needed in this building,” says Tate of a narrow side street just two blocks from the Inner Harbor.
“Then, we discovered that, because it was an older commercial street, it didn’t fall under all of the strict guidelines of the historic district.” This meant that she and Cook would be free to do something contemporary and unusual.
Conveniently, their search for an architect brought them to the very same block. Rebecca Swanston had designed seven other homes on their block 15 years earlier and lives in one of them. She’d recently completed work on the American Visionary Art museum with designer Alex Castro, and Tate and Cook admired her cutting-edge sense of design.
“I do a lot of renovation in Federal Hill,” says Swanston. “I think I’m known for meshing new with old, taking an old framework and putting new contemporary architecture within it. It’s hard to find people who are willing to take risks with something new and different,” she adds. “You certainly are always looking for clients as open-minded as Pam and Patrick. They were so committed to doing it right that it was a lot of fun for me.”
Because the couple’s main goal was to bring light and airiness to the former garage, the design featured an open kitchen/dining/living area and soaring glass exterior walls. The floor surface would extend past the window walls and out into the courtyard, creating the illusion of one large, continuous space. By far the most striking design feature would be a steel and glass pyramid extending from the first through the second floors in the rear of the house, providing a column of light.
The upstairs, too, would have a geometric feel. A curved staircase and circular skylight would be offset by angles and diagonals, including the triangles in the pyramid window. The four bedrooms would be set into the four corners of the house, off a central family room. And the walls upstairs would contain both clear and frosted glass to bring in light while maintaining privacy.
A partner in LCM Associates, an architectural millwork firm that acted as the general contractor for the project, Cook knew from the start just how difficult the project would be. The challenges began with demolition, which left only three walls standing. The contractors had to work carefully to not disturb either of the adjoining rowhomes. Along the way, they unearthed artifacts from days past, including pieces of pottery and a silver pistol.
Bringing materials and construction equipment into a narrow alley was no easy task, either, and Swanston’s earlier experiences with renovating homes on the same alley proved invaluable. “We knew she had a great sense of what was necessary to get through the neighborhood,” says Tate.
When the time came to install the steel pyramid in the rear of the house, the builder had to bring a crane into the alley to lift the one-piece structure up and over the roofline. “Physically, I could not get my hand between the crane and the deck across the street. That’s how tightly packed it was,” says Tate. “It was like building a ship in a bottle.”
All of this commotion, as well as roadblocks and street closings, certainly caught the eyes of the neighbors. “Nobody had seen a steel thing like this go up in this neighborhood,” says Swanston. “Everybody wanted to come by and find out what was being built.”
Tate says there is a love-hate relationship between the neighborhood and the house. “Our immediate neighbors were incredibly supportive. They were happy to see a big space that had been vacant turned into something viable. It may not be their personal taste, but they were fascinated by it,” she says. “Those who are here for historic reasons would have preferred a building more in keeping with the traditional style of the neighborhood.”
Eighteen months of construction produced a super-modern masterpiece. The pyramid windows, window walls and skylights flood the house with natural light. A state-of-the-art radiant heating system in the floor keeps it temperate year-round, while using minimum energy.
Although triangles and diagonal lines dominate the design, a round skylight and spiral staircase add softening curves. “Everybody thinks that because it’s so contemporary, with so much glass and steel, it would just be too chilly,” says Tate. “But actually, it’s very cozy in a strange way, because you orient yourself to the heated floor.”
Purple kitchen cabinets add a bit of playfulness. Tate says they were the only opportunity for color on the first floor. “The color of the steel in the aluminum framework was dictated by the manufacturer,” she explains. “Then we had to find flooring that would complement it. We knew we had only one wall on the first floor, so there would be few places to hang art or paint color. So the cabinets would be our color wall.”
The kitchen’s stainless steel Sub-Zero refrigerator, two ovens, two sinks and 48-inch cooktop make the space highly functional, a must for Tate, who was a professional cook for 13 years and ran a bakery, catering and gourmet-to-go business. The cabinets and counter were built to a larger-than-normal scale so they wouldn’t be swallowed up by their open surroundings. In the center, a large keyhole-shaped island serves as an eating area and contains the additional sink in its granite surface. To the right of the cabinets, an organization center features a desk area and shelves for cookbooks.
“Some architects don’t design kitchens,” says Swanston. “But I feel it’s always part of the whole. The way people live today, the kitchen tends to be the hub of the house. So if you turn it over to somebody else, they might not understand the whole.” As a result of such attention, the kitchen won a national design award from Sub-Zero. The house in its entirety has been published in trade magazines and is featured in an upcoming national book, “The New City Home: Smart Design for Metro Living,” by Leslie Clagett (Taunton Press 2002). Swanston hopes the book will encourage more people to move back into the city.
Tate and Cook are certainly glad they stayed. Their house has proven to be a practical place for an active family of five. “The kids have free rein,” Tate says of Aislinn, 8, Teagan, 5, and Seamus, 2. “They can just pop out the door to go play, and come back in the other door. I don’t have any worries for them because the space is secure. It’s hard surfaces, but they still have a sense of freedom.”