HGTV programming executives, eat your heart out: Jim and Jennifer Stewart Kuhl’s renovation in Ridgely’s Delight is a made-for-TV saga if there ever were one.
In 2002, after five years of living in a center-hall Colonial in Roland Park, the Kuhls went in search of a warehouse they could renovate in an urban neighborhood home to more professional couples like themselves— i.e. sans children— than they found in Roland Park.
Jim, a product development manager for Northrop Grumman, was driving through the narrow streets of Ridgely’s Delight one day when he spotted a woman walking her cat on a leash. That woman introduced herself as Sharon Reuter (whose urban garden was featured in Style’s May/June 2004 issue), invited Jim to see her house and talked lovingly about the neighborhood. She also mentioned that Baltimore City was planning to sell a bundle of properties— three small warehouses and two rowhouses— down the street and referred Jim to Angelo Hernandez at the city’s Department of Housing and Community Development. Hernandez, who offered guidance and support to the Kuhls throughout the process, told Jim that in order to win the right to negotiate for the properties, he and Jennifer would first have to present a proposal in front of the city and the neighborhood association.
“I took detailed measurements of the exterior and as far as I could get inside the building, taking photographs and counting windows and doors and measuring how far in on a wall the windows and doors were. I loaded all the information into an architectural software program on my computer and started to draw a plan of the house we wanted to create,” says Jim. “Since we didn’t know what we were doing, we took our proposal to the nth degree. We put together a PowerPoint presentation.”
Though they were rookies at the game, the Kuhls won the right to negotiate exclusively with the city and several months later paid $65,000 to become the proud owners of five deteriorating buildings they’d never seen inside. In fact, they weren’t able to explore some parts of the property for months— structural problems necessitated that each room and building be deconstructed and carefully shored up before they could push further into the home. “It’s amazing nothing collapsed,” says Jim. “The buildings had been empty for 20 years. The roofs were in the basement.”
Fifty or 60 Dumpsters and eight months later, the Kuhls’ builder started repairing the exterior walls, 70 percent of which he was able to salvage, and began framing the interior, giving shape to the home they’d designed with the architectural software. That’s right— the “provisional plan” Jim sketched became the design blueprint for the home. “It turned out more real than I ever thought,” he says. “As I was halfway into it, people started asking me who my architect was. I stared at them in disbelief. ‘Oh, I had to have an architect?’ I didn’t know that.”
Of course, the design had to remain fairly fluid given that much of the house was terra incognita. Off the kitchen, for example, the Kuhls discovered what they believe was the generator room for the sign company that once occupied the building and decided to make it into a wine cellar, a well-organized pantry and feeding area for their dogs Quincy and Sophie. In the gallery, which used to be the parlor of one of the original rowhouses, they’d initially planned for exposed brick walls. As it turned out, the walls were too deteriorated, so instead they created arch-shaped brick cutouts in a Sheetrock wall, which serve as nooks for displaying their late-19th-century and early-20th-century Japanese vases.
The heart of the home is the sleek industrial kitchen with its adjoining sitting area. Even though the Kuhls aren’t big cooks, they entertain regularly, inviting folks to gather around the long bar or ease into the set of 1960s-era curvy couches the Kuhls found at Great Finds in Design in Cockeysville and had George Sheppard at Affordable Reupholstery re-cover with black chenille. Throughout the home, comfortable upholstered furniture co-exists with the minimalist modern architecture, softening what could have been an ultra-industrial feel. “I’m glad we kept some of our original furniture,” says Jim. “It’s a good contrast with the architecture.”
The couple’s collection of art, ranging from Japanese scrolls, to prints by Baltimore-based artist Soledad Salamé bought from Gomez Gallery before it closed, to a streetscape of their street by local painter Nick Aumiller, fills the home with figure, pattern and colors. Says Jennifer, a technical recruiter for G.1440, a technical consulting company in Clipper Mill: “We like to find a diamond in the rough, spend money to have it framed, and it ends up looking great.”
In fact, the Kuhls proudly point out items throughout the home they’ve scored excellent deals on: the elegant baby grand piano in their living room, bought at Peabody Institute’s yearly practice piano sale. The contemporary sofas and chairs in the living room, purchased on sale at Nouveau Contemporary Goods before the store moved from its Mount Vernon location. The Kenmore refrigerator and freezer, separate units that masquerade as an expensive industrial unit with the help of a unifying frame.
From the kitchen, one doorway leads to the open living and dining room, where the ceiling soars to 20 feet and light filters in through windows placed high on the exterior wall. An oversized fireplace with seating for eight dominates one wall and on the opposite wall, a European-style garage glass door leads to what was the fifth building in the parcel, and is now a charming courtyard.
A spiral staircase leads from the dining area to a serene room furnished with a low table and cushions where the Kuhls’ Japanese scrolls are displayed.
Another doorway off the kitchen leads to the couple’s roomy dressing room and master bathroom and features a spiral staircase leading up to the sleeping loft. Like many of the second floor spaces in the home, a knee-wall partially made of glass block provides privacy without blocking light.
Throughout the 3 1/2 years of the project, Jim spent his spare time researching products on the Web and devising ways to integrate 21st century technology into the late 19th and early 20th century properties. He came up with the idea of installing an elevator to the third-floor guest suite, which features two bedrooms separated by a shared bathroom. The elevator— an industrial version without any finishing or design flourishes— cost about $20,000 and allowed the Kuhls to avoid a narrow, steep staircase. He also insisted on wiring the home with speakers that allow him to pump music from his laptop to an amplifier and then to every room in the house, with a separate volume control in each room. But his favorite innovation is in the powder room off the kitchen: a public bathroom-style urinal. “Everyone is jealous of it,” says Jim.
A year after they moved into their home, the Kuhls say they’re still recovering from the renovation, and vow they’ll never do it again. And yet, when visitors gaze admiringly at the home and ask, “So, who designed it?” they can’t deny they enjoy saying, “We did.”
Upholstery George Sheppard at Affordable Reupholstery
5348 Reisterstown Road, 410-764-6915
Framing Frame House, 901 S. Ann St., 410-563-4595
Artwork consultation Stephen Fisher Interiors, 410-435-1957
Furnishings Nouveau Contemporary Goods, Belvedere Square, http://www.nouveaubaltimore.com; Z Gallerie, Tyson’s Corner, http://www.zgallerie.com; West Elm, Tyson’s Corner, http://www.westelm.com