Johnny Unitas' former home is canvas for BSO show house

This year's Baltimore Symphony Decorators' Show House offers not only a look at the latest interior design trends but also a peek into the Timonium home of quarterback great Johnny Unitas.

Unitas lived in the five-bedroom house on Timonium Road from 1971, when the he led the Colts to an AFC title match against the Miami Dolphins, until 1988, when he moved to a farm in northern Baltimore County. Unitas died in 2002.

His widow, Sandy; daughter, Paige; and son, Chad, and other members of his family, will cut the ribbon to open the show house on April 28, giving visitors the chance see rooms decorated by some of the region's premier designers.

Every year, Baltimore Symphony Associates, the nonprofit organization that sponsors the event to raise money for the symphony's education initiatives, has a number of houses from which to choose its show house. But when the owner of the home at 311 W. Timonium Road offered her house to the group, "it was too good to pass up," says Carolyn Stadfeld, the organization's design chairwoman.

Many area designers didn't want to pass up the chance, either. Stadfeld says 55 interior decorators from as far away as Northern Virginia made bids on the 23 design spaces in the show house.

"Any time you have a national figure, that's a big draw," says Stevenson-based designer Victor Liberatore, who with his partner, Gail Lieberman, successfully bid for the living room.

The designers decorate the rooms at their own expense, hoping the show house will bring them new clients, Stadfeld explains.

This year's house, a stucco Colonial built in 1932, is structurally almost the same as when the Unitas family lived there 40 years ago, but the designers have transformed the look of rooms.

Unitas' office, which once housed his many plaques and awards, including his NFL Man of the Year and NFL MVP trophies, has been turned into a bright and cheery library.

The large addition that the family built for entertaining, and which once sported a pool table and bar, has been converted to a great room.

Sandy Unitas visited the house a few weeks ago and says she was impressed by what she saw.

"From what I've seen so far, it's fabulous," Unitas says, noting the visit was the first time she had been on the property in 26 years. "I wish it would have been a show house when I was trying to do it myself. It would have been much better."

Johnny Unitas bought the house in 1971 before the couple married. At that time, the property included seven acres, much of it woodland, on a hill overlooking Timonium. Sandy Unitas recalled a sweeping driveway lined with dogwoods that led up to the house. "The setting was absolutely gorgeous," she says.

A couple of Unitas family pictures are almost all the evidence show house visitors will see that this home once belonged to the football legend. The committee that awarded the bids wanted rooms that would appeal to design enthusiasts, Stadfeld says.

"We were looking for ideas that are current," she explains. "We were not looking to make the rooms match all through the house."

The designs draw inspiration from a variety of sources, including the Eastern Shore, the Mediterranean Sea and a French boudoir.

Regina Bello, owner of the Monogram Shop on Falls Road, was the exception, decorating the kitchen with the Unitas family in mind. In the brightly painted room, she has set the stage for a birthday party, complete with a cake and pendants.

Bello says she knew Unitas when he lived in the home because she lived in a neighboring community and their children carpooled to school together.

The kitchen design reflects Unitas' dream for a country home, which he eventually bought in Baldwin. Bello uses cow and chicken motifs on the walls, and the ceiling, which is painted emerald — Pantone's color of the year — is reminiscent of a green pasture.

On a ceiling beam she has stenciled a quote from Unitas: "A man never gets to his station in life without being helped, aided, shoved, pushed and prodded to do better."