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David Wiesand's design odyssey in Mt. Vernon

What's it like to live in a design laboratory?

Local furniture craftsman David Wiesand knows. He created one at his Mount Vernon home, spending years renovating the historic property and trying out a variety of decor and styles.

The finished space — he continues to tweak — is featured in the Maryland House and Garden Pilgrimage that begins Sunday in the downtown Baltimore neighborhood.

Now in its 74th year, the tour features more than 50 houses, gardens, farms, churches and historic sites throughout Maryland, with proceeds going to support a variety of preservation projects.

Before Wiesand purchased it in 1999, the 1855 residence had been converted to commercial use and became variously a Hupmobile auto dealership, a Squirt bottling plant and home of the Reliable Tire Co.

Originally, Wiesand intended only to renovate the street level for his custom furniture business, McLain Wiesand.

"The building had lots of structural damage — the floors were hanging by a thread, the stairs were failing, and much of the roof was rotting or had caved in," says Wiesand.

The first task was to make the building structurally sound — jacking up the ceiling and adding a steel beam and lally columns before creating a storefront, furniture workshop and small office.

With the structural work completed, Wiesand began to explore the the second and third floors, "stripping wallpaper and cleaning up to see what was there, what I could work with, what could be replicated, what needed to be replaced," he says. By 2005, those explorations prompted a decision — he would renovate the second and third floors, converting them back to residential space.

With the exception of mechanical systems, electric and plumbing, Wiesand, a self-taught woodworker and welder, did most of the work himself, often relying on some assistance from his children as well as from craftsmen and artisans employed at McLain Wiesand.

Although the condition of the rooms was borderline disastrous, Wiesand approached the project with optimism.

"One thing I had going for me is that there were no constraints. There was no existing kitchen or bathrooms. I had the shell to define the space, but otherwise the rest was a clean slate," he says.

Wiesand said the first step was to establish a bedroom and a bathroom.

To begin, HVAC, electrical and plumbing contractors updated and installed the major systems all at once, a process that helped define the floor plan.

"The mechanical systems created some limitations," he says. "I didn't want to box in pipes and ducts, so there were only certain places where I could put the kitchen and bathrooms."

With major systems in place, and a floor plan that put his bedroom away from the street and living spaces toward the front of the house, Wiesand began the steady, detailed work.

"The first rooms I focused on were the second-floor front parlor and the brown neoclassical-style TV room. I wanted to get rooms done 100 percent before moving onto the next," says Wiesand.

And so he proceeded, room by room, for three years.

Along the way such elements as missing hardware, millwork and staircase components were either painstakingly recreated or replaced with materials from the Baltimore architectural salvage resource, Second Chance.

Of course, when a structural renovation becomes so epic in proportion, it's easy to focus on the details of construction. But that's just part of the story. For Wiesand, the house evolved in conversation with the things he loves — custom furniture, antiques, art and architectural artifacts.

"Much of the style of the house relates to my collections but also the places I have been. The decor is about re-creating the feeling of favorite places I've traveled," says Wiesand.

As such, the house became what he describes as "a sort of laboratory" for decorative styles, with a bedroom that could just as easily be in a Tuscan farmhouse, an ornate sitting room fit for a sultan and a kitchen that mixes rustic and industrial elements for a cosmopolitan vibe.

For the second-floor parlor, Wiesand took cues from the room itself in defining what it would be. High ceilings, tall windows and elaborate crown molding in relatively decent condition inspired a room in the spirit of what might have existed in the 1850s.

After stripping away two layers of wallpaper, and with only bare plaster remaining, Wiesand decided not to paint the walls, opting instead for wax, a hand-rubbed finish that lends an almost ancient rustic patina.

Likewise, the decor exudes a sense of timelessness. Classically inspired custom bookcases display artifacts depicting Greek and Roman architecture, gods and emperors. Wiesand fabricated the new interior shutters using the only existing shutter still left in the house as the model. For the fireplace, which had long since been rendered inoperable, Wiesand built a new a mantel and surround, to which he then applied a faux marble finish — you'd never guess it wasn't original to the house.

The Moroccan Room on the third floor was inspired more by place than space. Wiesand, who had done extensive work in the Tremont Grand hotel, fell in love with what is known as the Oriental Room and wanted to create a space that would capture its essence.

To establish that Moroccan vibe, Wiesand created most of the details from scratch. More than 60 decorative medallions on the ceiling were cast from an original he sculpted himself. The Moroccan-style chandelier is a product of Wiesand's design, along with parts acquired from such unexpected sources as Bed, Bath & Beyond.

The wall tile is a direct reference to the Oriental Room. "I was able to borrow a tile from the old Masonic Temple on Charles Street [now the Tremont Grand] and make a mold, from which I cast over 160 replicas and then worked with my youngest daughter to attach [them] to the wall as wainscoting," says Wiesand.

In all it took about three years to finish. Spurred on by a deadline set when he agreed to be on the local neighborhood "Holly Tour," the majority of Wiesand's work was completed by December 2008.

Still, for someone like Wiesand, whose passion is not just the furniture he designs but the spaces furniture inhabits, there's no such thing as finished. Wiesand renovated his home the way he runs his business — hands-on, always refining, honing, perfecting.

He designed and built most of the light fixtures, laid the tile for the bathroom shower and kitchen and bathroom floors, poured the concrete countertops, tinkered with countless floor wall and trim finishes until each was just right — everything down to the last detail.

"The details," he says, "after all, are what really make a room."

Dennis Hockman is editor of Chesapeake Home + Life magazine. He can be reached at dhockman@tribune.com.

Maryland Home and Garden Pilgrimage

The Maryland House and Garden Pilgrimage spans four weekends in May and features more than 50 houses in six Maryland counties. The goal of the pilgrimage, a nonprofit organization, is to preserve and restore architecturally significant properties throughout the state. The tours will feature a lineup of some of Maryland's most fascinating and noteworthy properties; proceeds from the pilgrimage will support designated preservation projects in each community.

2011 tour dates and sites

Sunday: Baltimore City (Mount Vernon)

May 7: Calvert County

May 14: Kent County

May 15: Baltimore County (Worthington Valley, Mantua Mill Road area)

May 21: Anne Arundel County (South County)

May 22: Prince George's County

For more information, as well as tour books containing complete information on directions, and lunch reservations, call 410-821-6933 or go to mhgp@aol.com

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