Some things happen both gradually and suddenly: Like when the last child finally leaves home for good. Suddenly, the house is strangely quieter, the kitchen cleaner, the gasoline and grocery bills a fraction of what they once were. And gradually (usually after a massive cleanup), there's plenty of extra space. Oh, the possibilities. After years of parental sacrifice, paying tuition and orthodonture bills, playing chauffeur, social director, therapist, and short-order cook, it's time for the grown-ups to live a little. A grown child's empty bedroom can become an office, an art studio, a cozy library, or, in the case of one Baldwin couple, an elegant dressing area. We found four local couples who transformed their empty nests into adult retreats they plan to enjoy for decades.
When Jerry and Nancy Berson bought their Clarksville rancher 20 years ago, they had lots of ideas for how they wanted to fix it up. But serious home improvements always remained a low priority while they were busy rearing their son, Gregg.
Recently, Gregg finished college, and the Bersons, both professionals at the Social Security Administration and suddenly free of tuition and related expenses, could afford to ask themselves where they wanted to spend the rest of their lives.
They love living in Howard County, and as they priced comparable homes on one-acre lots like theirs, they realized it would be much more economical to remodel their current 1,500-square-foot home than to buy a so-called dream home. "So we decided, let's stay put, and we'll just build in our wish list," Nancy Berson said.
Jerry Berson appreciated the fact that since everything was on one level, the home was "suitable for aging in place," he said. With the help of architect Rob Brennan, principal of Brennan+Company Architects, they decided to add some 500 square feet to the home, enlarging it by a third, as well as adding two patios and a covered porch.
The most significant improvement was the expansion of the master bedroom and bath to create a spacious master suite. The original bedroom became a closet and hallway, and the master bath was bumped out to accommodate a soaking tub, double-sink vanity, and a walk-in shower with a bench. The commode was housed in a separate compartment with a frosted glass door to let in light.
Since the Bersons plan to remain in the home for decades longer—well into old age—safety grab bars were placed throughout the bathrooms, and all doorways are wide and free of thresholds to allow navigation by wheelchair, if necessary.
The living, dining, and kitchen areas were opened up and enlarged to enhance traffic flow. The kitchen, which had been remodeled nine years ago, was updated with new countertops and a central cooking island.
The Bersons also wanted their home to be more environmentally friendly, so Brennan used bamboo flooring in the bedroom and recycled tile and IceStone® countertops, made from 100 percent recycled glass and cement, in the kitchen and bath. The Bersons said they got a kick out of researching the IceStone company, which commits to progressive labor practices and employs a number of Tibetan refugees in its environmentally friendly factory in Brooklyn, New York.
To make the additions blend in with the existing structure, Brennan removed all of the aluminum siding and replaced it with HardiPlank®, an innovative masonry material that resembles wood but is much more durable. A new fiberglass roof was installed, and several clerestory windows were added in the bedroom to let in late afternoon light, while an overhang was designed to block hot summer sunlight from the west.
The house, built in the '60s, was "tired-looking," Brennan said, and lacked curb appeal. He added larger windows and clad them in a cranberry-colored metal, to add some punch, and painted the front door the same shade of red. He chose the HardiPlank siding in gray-green and stone shades, to complement the brick base. New bluestone patios and walkways, and new exterior lighting, were added as well.
"It's sort of crazy," observes Jerry Berson, that all of these improvements were still less costly than buying a larger home. But the Bersons expect to be very happy with their new digs, once everything's finished. "We really don't want to move from here," he said.
Now, that's a rehab
It was a different kind of life-changing event that led Kim and Brian Butcher to build their dream house when the kids were gone—well, when most of their children were gone, since there's still one in the nest. Their prior home, on the Chesapeake Bay, was destroyed during Hurricane Isabel in 2003. More than 200 homes in their Bowleys Quarters community in eastern Baltimore County were lost.
Brian Butcher recalls watching with Kim from an upstairs window as the family's furniture floated out the back of the house and into the churning bay.
When they were ready to rebuild the house, the Butchers planned a home that would meet their future needs, and be comfortable for kids and grandkids to visit, but it was also one they probably would not have planned that way if their three daughters, now in their 20s, were still living at home. Looking ahead several years, they created three bedrooms, each large enough for a small family, and gave each its own private balcony.
"We wanted to keep this as more than just a home for us, more as a family retreat," said Brian Butcher, "where the extended family could gather."
The new house, completed last November, occupies 2,700 square feet, with an additional 1,100 square feet of balconies and decks. Because of setback requirements on either side, they needed to build tall, rather than wide.
The Butchers' original home was a bungalow, and architect Mark Mobley sought to keep the new design consistent with coastal architecture—casual, comfortable, sunny—using materials that would weather gracefully. The new design was also mindful of the simplicity of other homes in Bowleys Quarters, which historically has been working class (though in recent years, many longtime residents have sold out for upwards of $1 million for a waterfront lot to people who remodel the homes). "They wanted a nice house, but didn't want it to stand out too much from the rest of the houses," Mobley said.
The Butchers insisted on natural cedar shingles on the house. Mobley used a grayish silver stain on the shingles because that's the color the wood will turn to as it ages. The semi-transparent stain allows the natural beauty of the cedar to show through, and it includes a clear preservative to help protect the wood from the elements.
The main floor of the residence has an open design, with a few load-bearing columns distinguishing the functional spaces. For convenience, the laundry room is on the second floor. And because it's just the two of them at home most of the time, the Butchers opted for only 1-1/2 bathrooms, with no master bath. The master bedroom does face the bay, though, and has a large private balcony. "It's like a skybox," said Brian Butcher.
The third story of the house remains unfinished, but it could easily accommodate two bedrooms, he said.
Because the house is situated right on the Chesapeake with extensive water views from every room, it's a popular spot with the Butchers' friends and family. They love to invite guests to stay over on holidays and during the summer, when crab feasts are a common occurrence at their house.
"It's worked out real well for everybody," said Brian Butcher, a food broker. "No matter what room you're standing in in the house, you have a view of the water." For the ultimate vantage point, the Butchers added a widow's walk at the very peak of the roof.
So after all that, are they anxious about the next 100-year storm? "We're cautious," said Kim Butcher, who notes that the new house "shimmies" a little during high, gusty winds. "We probably wouldn't stay at home during another big storm." But even after Isabel, the Butchers still enjoy the drama of a good nor'easter. And now they can witness nature's temper tantrums with even more balconies and windows.
"To watch the weather here is great," Brian Butcher said.
Surprise: We're back
Lucy and David Skeen have always loved their Roland Park Victorian home. Since moving into the spacious 100-year-old house in the early '80s, they did their best to maintain the property while paying private-school tuition for their four children.
But when their youngest, Marietta, began to attend Kenyon College six years ago, the Skeens were finally able to put some money into repairs and improvements. They replaced gutters and garage doors and brought in a plasterer to patch ceilings that had been crumbling for years.
"We would have dinner parties and the plaster would fall on people's heads," said Lucy Skeen. "It was embarrassing."
The Skeens first converted what had been the kids' den into a home office and sitting room for Lucy Skeen, who works as a contract administrator for the Baltimore City Schools.
The first-floor room, painted ivory, receives lots of natural light. With houseplants and a fireplace, it functions as a cozy retreat, Skeen said. She decorated the room with whimsical art, a rattan desk, and a comfy chair where she watches a lot of decorating shows on HGTV.
"A lot of my job is data analysis. It's very, very non-creative work," Skeen said. "So it's a great release for me to watch all these shows."
Slowly, the Skeens addressed long-held aspirations for the house. The wraparound front porch, which for so long had been a favorite gathering space for their children's friends, could now be spiffed up and made suitable for more adult entertaining. And a second-floor bedroom that had been shared by Marietta and her older sister, Talli, was converted into an elegant guest room.
Before the bedroom makeover, Skeen said, "It was completely trashed, a disaster. The walls were covered with tape."
Now the freshened guest room contains twin beds with pink and white spreads, a small white loveseat, and an assortment of books. "We have a lot of out-of-town friends, and I wanted them to have a pretty place to stay," she said.
But a funny thing happened as the Skeens began to reclaim spaces for themselves: One by one, three of their adult children moved back home.
David Skeen Jr., now 27, wanted to save money for a down payment on a house, so he reclaimed an upstairs bedroom in the summer of 2006. His younger brother, Roy, 25, had returned to Baltimore after living in the Caribbean for two years. The brothers bought adjacent rowhouses in Remington, which they are currently renovating.
Marietta, 24, has never fully moved out. She's saving money for graduate school while working at a local restaurant, said Lucy Skeen.
With the adult children relegated to the third floor, the Skeens can keep the second floor, which contains the master bedroom as well as the guest room, reasonably clean and neat. The master bedroom was redone in the summer of 2006, and a much-needed walk-in closet added for Lucy Skeen. "I had one armoire for all my clothes for 25 years, if you can believe that," Skeen said.
The uncluttered master bedroom features soft white walls, wheat carpeting, gold draperies, and neutral bedding. Skeen made balloon shades with a pale blue and gold floral pattern, which she also used to cover a wing chair and ottoman that sit by the fireplace. David Skeen, a maritime lawyer, has an adjoining den that is accessible through the walk-in closet.
The Skeens also managed to buy some new matching chaise lounges for the living room before surrendering their empty-nester status two years ago. It might be a while before they get back to their vision for the home, but the Skeens don't seem to mind—much.
"It's been a fun house, we love our children, and we're glad to help them out," Skeen said.
After two of their three children moved out of the house, and the third entered high school, a Baldwin couple last autumn decided to annex an empty bedroom and enlarge their own bedroom.
A common wall was removed, except for a shoulder-high section that bisects the room, and behind which the king bed fits perfectly. The new space became a multifunctional space for the husband—who runs a global food manufacturing business and travels frequently—to dress, sit, and exercise.
The couple had shared a walk-in closet, which was inadequate to accommodate all of their clothing and accessories. The husband's dressing area has custom cherry built-ins with black trim, and a cherry writing table with leather top that complements the look. Large windows allow lots of natural light and views of gracious, mature trees in the backyard. A corner window seat, clothes valet with a built-in steamer, and chest for the wife's jewelry complete the dressing area.
The wife now has sole use of the closet, and the cabinetmaker built a custom system of shelves, drawers, and rods to make the space most efficient. There is also a sliding door to the master bathroom from the closet.
The suite's lights and window shades are operated remotely, with controls conveniently positioned at entrances and at bedside.
"I'm not going to close seven shades every day," the woman quoted her husband as saying. "We're kind of spoiled," she added.
Recessed spotlights allow one spouse to read in bed while the rest of the room—and even the other side of the bed—remain relatively dark.
The room was designed to resemble the luxurious Peninsula Chicago hotel. "We love the sleekness of the hotel," said the wife. "This is the same kind of look: cosmopolitan, peaceful, clean."
In designing the master suite, interior designer Kimberly Eastburn chose a soothing color palette and a look that was "tranquil, but very sophisticated," she said. Her clients, for whom she has designed other rooms and even other homes, like clean lines and classic, contemporary furnishings, she said, and they wanted an uncluttered environment for their bedroom.
Eastburn and her female client traveled to the Merchandise Mart design center in Chicago—where the couple has another home and the husband's business is based—for inspiration. On the flight home, Eastburn sketched her ideas on a cocktail napkin, she said.
We were going for "a color palette that was not easily defined, whose moods change with the play of the light in a room," said Eastburn. Indeed, the bedding and window treatments, primarily made of silks of different textures, are in sophisticated gold, blue-greens, and buff tones.
The walls are painted Benjamin Moore's Pittsfield Buff. Textured wool carpeting in a neutral wheat keeps the room from feeling too feminine, she said.
"I didn't want a pretty bedroom," said Eastburn. "I wanted a beautiful bedroom."
The custom, motorized Roman shades are antique gold raj silk, with crystal bead trim. The over-draperies are made of two layers of sheer platinum silk, stitched together with lavish gold embroidery.
On the custom king bed, which has an upholstered base and headboard, the quilted embroidered silk fabric on the headboard matches that of the dust ruffle. For those, Eastburn chose a muddy blue-green and deep browns to keep the feeling neutral and not too feminine, she said. The coordinating spread has textured silk on the face side, with a buttery Italian chamee-colored wool on the back side for warmth.
This past spring, the master bath was renovated, and the couple added a Spa King soaking tub, spa shower, custom vanities, and a separate toilet enclosure. Frosted glass around the small enclosure allows privacy but lets natural light into the space.
No detail was overlooked to make this master suite as handsome and elegant as possible. For example, the hand-tooled English leather and nickel hardware in the master bath matches the drawer and door pulls in the dressing area.
And the choice of sumptuous silk as the predominant fabric in the room seems inspired. As the light changes in the room, whether from the movement of the sun across the sky or by adjusting the artificial light, the mood in the room becomes more intimate and romantic, as the bedding and window treatments take on a soft, warm glow, Eastburn said.
"The play on the fabrics at night is just magnificent," she added. "It's almost like moonlight. It brings this other-worldly quality to it."