All Marla and David Oros wanted was a charming old house in the city that had plenty of land— and room for both living and entertaining. (And by entertaining, we mean anywhere from small intimate dinner parties to larger political or charity fund-raisers for, say, 450 guests.)
When the couple first spotted the Roland Park house around Christmas of 2000, it was almost love at first sight. Yes, the house had both age— about 75 years— and character— with its formal Georgian stone fa8Dade. It also sat on 61/2 acres, next door to Elkridge Country Club. But it needed a lot of work. Most of its 10,000 square feet was divided into little nondescript rooms.
“From the way it looked from the outside, people thought the house was much grander on the inside than it actually was,” says interior designer Dan Proctor.
“It didn’t offer all the function and kinds of areas we wanted,” Marla explains.
And, as architect Jamie Snead quickly discovered, that wasn’t the only area found lacking. Most of the home’s plumbing, heating and electrical work needed to be replaced. The mortar between the stones had gone bad and the house had no footings.
And that was just for starters. But the team tackling this house was a formidable group of folks used to taking on big challenges.
David Oros had founded the wireless/mobile communications giant Aether Systems and now served as its chairman/CEO. Marla was the assistant dean of nursing at the University of Maryland. As board president, she was— and is— the driving force behind the Open Gates Health Center, which offers health care to uninsured and under-insured residents in Southwest Baltimore.
As the principal of Kirk Designs, Proctor is one of Baltimore’s most in-demand interior designers. And Snead, a partner in Ziger/Snead Architects, had headed up some of the city’s most creative building projects.
While some folks might have just gone in and razed the place, this group wanted to preserve as much of the original house as it could, while still providing the Oros family what it wanted.
The four sat down to determine what kinds of rooms they wanted, and what their functions would be. Bedrooms? Seven: the master bedroom; those for Oros children Erik, 13, and Heather, 10; and several guest rooms for visiting friends and family. Bathrooms? Eleven, including separate men’s and women’s powder rooms. David’s home office. Marla’s home office. A dining room big enough to seat 20 (that’s how many family members come for holiday meals). And a less formal family dining area. A game room downstairs for the kids. A comfy billiards room/den upstairs for mom and dad. A big kitchen with family room attached. Lots of closet space. A pool and poolhouse. And David’s pet projects: state-of-the-art electronics (of course!), wine cellar, movie theater and four-car garage. All the while, keeping in mind there had to be lots of space for those big fund-raisers, including a designated area next to the house where a custom-made party tent could be set up.
Challenge No. 1: How to create enough space and good flow for large parties while retaining an intimate feel for real family life.
Which immediately led to challenge No. 2: The home’s front door faced the wrong way— away from the street. Not exactly a welcoming sight for guests driving up.
As Snead reconfigured the home’s entrance to the current front of the house, he added wings on either side and a large open gallery in the back. He also opened up the interior, so that when you stand in the middle of the front foyer, you can see through the house. To the right, you look through a cozy library to the billiards room. To the left, you see the living room— the only original room left in the house— and the formal dining room beyond. Straight ahead is the gallery, encased in plate-glass windows, beyond which lies a lush English garden.
“Jamie did a really fabulous job staying true to the Georgian period,” Marla says. “He changed the interior to meet our needs and preserved the integrity of the [original] house.”
The second floor houses the master bedroom suite, Marla’s office, both children’s rooms and two guest rooms. Another guest bedroom suite, complete with sitting room, occupies the third floor.
The lower level is a treasure trove of delights, including a top-of-the-line movie theater with reclining leather seats and a wine cellar with a special tasting room that features an antique table formerly housed in the Boston Museum. There’s the home gym, with steam shower nearby. And a “nifty ’50s” game room complete with a mini-diner set in one corner, air hockey and ping-pong table, jukebox, pinball and video game machines and a large plasma TV.
Snead says the biggest challenge facing him and project manager Barbara Sweeney wasn’t adding onto or reconfiguring the house, but making sure the large structure— now 26,000 square feet— fit into its surrounding environs. When many of the property’s big old trees were found to be diseased, not only did A&A Tree Experts take them down, but landscapers Mark Willard Associates created a new perimeter around the house by trucking in mature trees from other states, and planting a variety of large bushes to provide both some privacy and neighborhood continuity. These plantings also helped soften the view of the house from the street. And continuity on the exterior of the house meant stone mason Primo Doria had to scour the East Coast for matching pieces.
Meanwhile, Proctor and his assistant, Angel Fischer, were scouring this country— and several in Europe— for another important design element: mantelpieces. Eight of them.
“Since everything is on-axis once you’re inside the door, there were fireplaces in key sightlines in every direction,” Proctor explains. There were also a few beyond, including the stone semi-enclosed outdoor porch out back. “Marla really wanted a house with character, and we knew we needed to look for unusual mantelpieces.”
Most of the mantels came from old estates and castles in Europe. Marla and Proctor started with each mantel to set the tone for each room.
“The big challenge was keeping our home from being formal and stuffy,” Marla says. “We didn’t want a house like a museum.”
Using warm colors and fabrics, and soft comfortable furniture juxtaposed with the Oros’ contemporary art was one way Proctor softened the large spaces. Another was to place furniture in groupings in the larger rooms, “so people could gather there in an intimate way, even though they are in a much larger setting.”
Both he and Marla point to the rear gallery as a good example. The 60-by-16-foot room is big enough to accommodate eight round tables— each seating 10— if need be. There’s lots of glass, and one full wall is stone. That’s plenty of potential for a less-than-cozy atmosphere, yet quite the opposite exists. Fabrics, reflecting the blue and gray tones of the stone, cover overstuffed chairs and loveseats. Warm wood accents, antique rugs, plants and soft draperies combine with lots of natural sunlight to make the room one that begs for a box of bonbons and a good book.
On the enclosed porch, you won’t find a stick of rattan. Instead, comfy all-weather furniture from the Italian firm Giati frames the fireplace.
Proctor says much of the home’s warmth and vitality is due to the Oroses themselves, and Marla’s hands-on involvement in every aspect of its renovation and design.
“We wanted to make it family-functional and warm,” Marla says. “We have antiques throughout, but nothing looks untouchable.”
“One of the biggest successes of this project is that this is ultimately a family house,” Proctor concludes. “A young family who lives in a very modern way. … That feeling flows from room to room, which is good for both personal living and entertaining. And in that way, it’s a very modern house.”
Sloane Brown writes the “Table Talk” column for The Sun.