When Maryland Institute College of Art President Fred Lazarus IV and his wife, Jonna, moved into their home in 1979, it was far from a work of art. The five bedroom, 3 ½-bath, center-hall colonial had leaky plumbing, cracked plaster ceilings, an outdated electrical system, and cramped closets. To make matters worse, key rooms were in serious need of salvage.
"The kitchen was three little rooms with an appliance in every room," says Fred, wearing one of his trademark bow ties. "There was a refrigerator in one room and a stove in the other. A lot of people we knew had seen the house. And they all said, 'Isn't it a pretty piece of property?'" Then again, even the exterior—wildly overgrown and entangled with vines—needed work. "This was the first house the Realtor showed us," says Jonna, an award-winning landscape designer with her own firm, Lazarus Design Associates. "We knew nothing about Baltimore, and, before we bought this house, we proceeded to look for another nine months because it was in such bad shape. We had just renovated a Philadelphia-style row house in Washington, D.C., and we weren't looking for a house that was another project."
But after looking at dozens of homes, none of which seemed to suit their needs, the couple conceded the residence had its charms—with its intricate crown molding, three massive fireplaces, and scenic 2.75-acre lot in the picturesque Poplar Hill section of Baltimore. The history of the shingle-style home, built in 1927, also appealed—the Lazaruses learned that the residence was built by the B&O Railroad's chief engineer H.A. Lane, who kept it as a summer retreat. And the lush, sylvan setting had its own claim to fame. "When we looked at the blueprints, we realized that the landscaping was done by a female architect, which was very unusual at the time," says Jonna. "That appealed to me, of course, because I am a landscape architect."
Thirty-two years later, the Lazaruses are still at the same address. After several major renovation projects through the years, including two kitchen rehauls (the six-burner Wolf range and the double ovens now happily share the same space) and a soaring, sun-filled family room addition by architect Larry Link, their home is suffused with sophistication and style and a masterful combination of art, antiques, and modern pieces. It's an amalgam, a "scrapbook," says Jonna, of their shared love of art, 19th-century American antiques and classic, modern furniture. From the elegant circa 1820 American dining room trestle table and antique cherry writing desk to a pair of iconic Marcel Breuer brown leather and chrome Wassily chairs and Eames chairs from Fred's childhood, the house is thoughtfully mixed, not matched. "We bought things incrementally," explains Fred. "We don't tend to buy things to set up a room, so to speak, and we've never used an interior designer." Adds Jonna, "Everything here, with the exception of the upholstered goods, is something we collected along the way or had made along the way. What things look like, what they feel like, is what we look for. The actual value of a particular piece is least important to us."
Even so, their space is filled with many personal treasures. Kilim rugs cover the wide-plank pine floors, and artwork by MICA faculty and students is thoughtfully displayed on the walls, including four magnificent photo etchings by former faculty member and internationally acclaimed printmaker Peter Milton, as well as a painting by celebrated painter (and former director of MICA's Hoffberger School of Painting) Grace Hartigan and a piercing portrait by former MICA student and Fulbright scholar Francesco Lombardo. While Jonna has a passion for color, Fred, who is colorblind, is more interested in form. "What I love," says Fred, "is what artists see that I don't see and, as a result, you see things differently through their eyes when you see their work."
Through the years, decorating their home has been a favorite pastime, whether trawling flea markets in Pennsylvania or antique shopping in New Orleans. "We both have the same interest in antiques and old furniture, more country than formal," explains Jonna. Adds Fred, "We never bring anything home unless the other one likes it as well." The couple are also inveterate collectors. Cherished objects include a set of masks from Thailand, Italy, and Mexico, pre-Columbian pottery purchased in Panama, and copper teapots and baskets from South America and France. Depression-era kitchen utensils and pottery displayed in the kitchen are a personal passion for Jonna. "I'm really interested in the functional," she says. "When I'm in Italy, I am much more likely to come home with dish towels from the local farmers' market than jewels."
Good design has always played an important role in the Lazaruses' lives. Before going into landscape design, Jonna was a home furnishings director for the venerable Chicago department store Carson Pirie Scott. Working with buyers all over the world, Jonna created elaborate model rooms and table settings throughout the furniture department. "The first disagreements we used to have when we got married were about my 'fiddling around the house'," laughs Jonna, "Fred would say, 'You know it doesn't have to look like a model room—people live here.'"
The couple's first meeting, a blind date 41 years ago, also got off to a less than perfect start. "I was in a community meeting with [Gary, Indiana] Mayor Hatcher, and I was supposed to meet Jonna and this other couple at 7:30 in Chicago," says Fred, laughing at the memory. "At 7:30, I was still in Gary, Indiana, and it was long before the days of cell phones. By the time I got back to the hotel where we were supposed to meet, there was a note saying they had waited for me for an hour, and I should meet them at the restaurant. By that time, I had missed dinner." Feeling badly, Fred invited Jonna to spend the next day at Chicago's Museum of Science & Industry, and she accepted. But on the way home from their date, his rental car ran out of gas. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise. "I thought to myself, 'I never remember someone running out of gas so graciously,'" recalls Jonna, smiling. "The whole thing was so painless. We must have been falling in love because it didn't bother me at all."
It turns out, the two—who married within a year of their first date—had much in common, including a love of skiing, a passion for antiquing, and a background in retail. While Jonna worked in a department store, Fred, who hails from Cincinatti, Ohio, descended from a department-store dynasty. Fred's grandfather, Fred Lazarus, Jr., formed and led Federated Department Stores, a major national retail chain. (Of historical note, Fred, Jr., led a delegation from the National Retail Merchants Association in a successful effort to get President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to change the date of Thanksgiving back so there would be more shopping days before Christmas during the Depression.) Fred's father, Fred Lazarus III, was president and chairman of Shillitos (a Federated subsidiary), and Fred worked there in his summers selling everything from children's apparel to swimwear and mattresses.
While it was assumed that Fred would go into the family business, he realized after obtaining an MBA from Harvard that he wanted to carve out a different path. He joined the Peace Corps and worked in Panama for two years; he worked for the National Council for Equal Business Opportunity, helping to develop nonprofit community organizations before becoming president of the Washington Council for Equal Business Opportunity. In the mid-'70s, a chance encounter with Nancy Hanks, the then-chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, led to a spot as her senior staff assistant.
When his NEA term was over, Fred interviewed for the job at MICA, which was struggling at the time. "Just like my house, I always like to say it was a place that had a lot of potential," says Fred. Though he was the first non-artist to lead the college in the school's then 153-year history, he had always been interested in arts education. "While at business school, I wrote my thesis on strategic planning in higher education," he says, "and I have been involved in urban and community development, so it was a place I found interesting. Plus, they were desperate. Otherwise, they wouldn't have hired someone with my credentials." (For her part, Jonna moved from home design to landscape architecture in the late '70s and has since done award-winning work on the MICA campus as well as many other commercial and residential projects.)
Under Lazarus's 32-year leadership, MICA is now one of the leading art schools in the country and its programs are consistently top-ranked by U.S. News & World Report. "It's so great to work with young kids who have a passion for something," says Fred. "In the past, there weren't a lot of opportunities, and most of them ended up waiting tables in restaurants. But because they have technology skills, that's not true anymore. I tell parents, 'You don't have to worry about them moving back in with you.'"
Now empty nesters (daughter Anna, 31, is a teacher; son Fritz, 28, is a chef), Fred and Jonna spend their weekends kayaking, hiking the Gunpowder with their Jack Russell Terriers, Isabel and Casey, skiing at their home in Vail, and simply enjoying the life they've built together. "We have an attachment to everything in the house, whether it was something brought home from a trip or something purchased for a particular purpose," says Fred. "The artists whose work is here we have known a long time, and I can almost remember the day we bought everything that's here in this house. Our home is a collection of memories."