Old buildings in a state of decay tend to catch an architect’s eye. Walking through Oxford, Maryland, one evening, Washington, DC-based architect Ward Bucher saw a dilapidated building, known locally as the Downes Curtis Sail Loft, with a “sold” sign out front. A week later, Bucher learned that the property had been listed as a lot—everyone assumed that no one would want the building—and a local had put through a contract to keep the house from being torn down. When that deal fell through, the architect started thinking he might buy it himself and renovate the structure into a summer family home.
Bucher’s vision of what the “great old wreck” might be was matched by his professional knowledge of what it would take to achieve it. Even so, the prospects looked dim. In addition to its poor condition, the first floor of the building stood only two inches above the 100-year-old flood plain. “It was a total disaster,” says Bucher. “But we recognized the possibility that it could have a new life. It only took four times as long and twice as much money as we had planned.”
Bucher and his wife, Lisa Johnson, an administrator for a nonprofit, couldn’t imagine that any lender would finance the purchase, let alone the construction cost. But the building echoed with a lot of history, so a local bank willingly lent them the money, almost on faith. “They asked me, ‘How much will it cost to renovate?’ I gave them a number and they gave me the loan,” says the architect. A Maryland historic tax credit—worth 20 percent of the construction cost—made the project feasible.
The house was originally built in 1899 as a segregated public school for black children. It stayed that way until it closed in 1934. In 1944, a local couple, Nellie Leatherberry and her husband, Elbert Wilson, bought the building for $350. They rented out the first floor as a dwelling. The upper floor, which was never subdivided, was leased to Downes Curtis, a local sail maker who occupied it for more than 50 years and gave the building its name. Leatherberry and Wilson moved a small, wood-frame building, a former ice cream shop, from nearby Market Street and placed it between the sail loft and the street, where they ran a restaurant for local oyster shuckers and crab pickers. When Downes Curtis and his brother Albert retired in the mid-1990s, the property fell into disrepair until the widowed Nellie Leatherberry—who will celebrate her 102nd birthday in January—sold it to Bucher and Johnson in 2001.
The Maryland Historic Trust placed few restrictions on the renovation, other than to require that the original wood siding be restored. Bucher’s first move was to raise both buildings by three feet to get them above the flood plain.
The rear of the old schoolhouse, which faces Town Creek, an inlet of the Tred Avon River, had no doors or windows; Bucher redesigned this side of the house to take advantage of the water views.
On the ground floor he replaced a small single-story addition with a light-filled master bedroom. On the second floor, now converted into the main living space and kitchen, a door and a series of windows open onto a covered porch above the new bedroom, while a French door at the attic level opens onto a deck. Windows, doors and wood siding on the other three sides of the house were restored and the former ice cream parlor-turned-eatery became a guest cottage.
“As it turned out, restoring the house proved to be a great advantage, because it’s taller and closer to the water than what is allowed by current zoning,” says Bucher. “We’re higher than all of the surrounding houses. We get great breezes at the second floor, great cross-ventilation.” He also discovered that the legendary local mosquitoes stay close to the ground. “We had planned to screen the second-floor porch, but the mosquitoes don’t bother us at the second floor, so we left it open.”
The first floor had been divided into a rabbit warren of rooms, which Bucher reconfigured into bedrooms and two bathrooms. Not wanting a “bowling alley” of a hallway, he designed the walls as a wave, a pattern that continues across the ceiling of the master bedroom to conceal air-conditioning ducts. In addition to providing visual interest, the eight-foot-high hallway amplifies the height of the adjacent 12-foot-tall bedrooms and bathrooms, where the original heart pine floors and beadboard ceilings were preserved.
The second floor had seen much more wear and tear during its years as a sail loft, but Bucher elected to repair and restore as much as he could, leaving the marks of age and matching new wood with old wherever the original was beyond repair. Throughout the rooms, the homeowners preserved a sense of the building’s history. An original schoolroom supply closet was restored and used as a prototype for the crown molding, cabinet pulls and beadboard details of the kitchen cabinets. Johnson handcrafted Roman-style shades that gather in the same manner as the square-rigger sails once fashioned by the Curtis brothers in the same room. The kitchen countertops are made of soapstone and butcher-block maple, typical late-19th-century work surfaces. A turn- of-the-century wood-burning stove, a Bucher family heirloom, is topped with a Maytag gas cooktop that raises the old stove to a new height without damaging the original appliance. The only modern intervention is a bar-height counter with built-in shelves and cabinets—designed by Bucher in a wave pattern that echoes the hallway below.
Anchoring the dining space is an old maple table purchased from an antiques store in nearby Cambridge, Maryland, and Thonet bentwood café chairs. Hanging over the table, a 19th-century gas chandelier is wired for electricity, a common turn-of-the-century upgrade, and above the door is a school clock purchased in an antiques store in Lambertville, New Jersey. Says Ward Bucher, “We wanted, as much as possible, to restore the house to its original date of 1899.”
Freelance writer and editor Michael Tardif is based in Bethesda, Maryland. Kenneth M. Wyner is a Takoma Park, Maryland, photographer.
ARCHITECTURE: Ward Bucher, AIA, Bucher/ Borges Group, Washington, DC.