It takes a discerning, optimistic eye to stand outside a dilapidated boarding house and see grandeur. And it takes a fair amount of bravery and blind faith to buy the house without a do-it-yourself bone in your body.
But that's just what Maria Wasowski and her husband, Mark Blackden, did 25 years ago when they bought the ramshackle American Foursquare at 306 E. Hume Ave. With six major renovations over two and a half decades, they transformed the house into an open, beautifully-decorated space surrounded by a large, lush garden.
They saw promise in a place others deemed impossible.
Organizers of the 2012 Del Ray House and Garden Tour say the 12 houses on the tour Saturday, including Wasowski and Blackden's, illustrate this power of recognizing potential.
"It seems to me, particularly in Del Ray, that the tour is really about possibility," said Virginia Amos, the co-chair of the tour. "What are the possibilities for a typical 1940s brick row house? A young couple on a limited budget, what can they do? What are the possibilities if you tear something down and build something from scratch? What are the possibilities of taking a house like Maria's and working through all of the problems to come up with something wonderful?"
The Del Ray House and Garden Tour, held every two years since it started in 1999, gives residents an intimate look around their neighbors' gardens and inside their homes. What sets the tour apart from others held in more homogenous neighborhoods like Old Town is the diverse architecture, Amos said.
"You get to see everything from a very modern house to something that dates to the 1800s," she said. "And you also get to see how people have personalized their space with art work, with repurposed items, you know, what do concrete countertops look like? What do IKEA cabinets look like? They actually look pretty fabulous. They really do."
The IKEA cabinets are at 406A E. Howell Ave.; the recycled glass and concrete countertops are at 306 E. Hume Ave.; and you can find the most modern interior at 2600 Dewitt Ave.
The other houses on the tour are:
- 400 E. Howell Ave.
- 11 E. Windsor Ave.
- 2001 La Grande Ave.
- 506 E. Windsor Ave.
- 2500 E. Leslie Ave.
- 2501 Terrett Ave.
- 2607 Dewitt Ave.
- 308 E. Hume Ave.
- 309 E. Hume Ave.
Wasowski, the co-owner of , volunteered to be on the tour and coaxed her neighbors, Joe and Christi Hart and Stephanie Babin, to join. Some homes are nominated by neighbors and others are identified by the Home and Garden committee, said Elise Reeder, who co-chairs the tour with Amos.
Organizers designed the tour with an eye toward showcasing an interesting array of houses as well as making it easy to navigate for the attendees, Reeder said.
Wasowski's house is one of three on the tour clustered within spitting distance of each other on Hume Avenue. That might not have been the case, though, if it weren't for an accident that blocked Route 1 in the late 1980s and forced Wasowski to detour through Del Ray.
Wasowski worked in Old Town at the time and lived with her husband in a condo in Northwest D.C. As she made her way through the neighborhood, she was immediately struck by the old homes and walkable streets. "I grew up with total Danish modern [design] but I always loved old things because we never had them," she said.
The housing market was hot in 1987 and houses in Del Ray were snapped up within a day or two, Wasowski said. But the house on Hume Avenue had been on the market three to four weeks when she and her husband first saw it—for obvious reasons, it turns out.
The owner lived on the bottom floor and rented the top floor to boarders. Old photos show a sleeping porch clinging precariously to the back of the house. Inside, Wasowski said nothing had been renovated since the house was built and everything was in a severe state of disrepair. The owner was a heavy smoker and tar hung thick on the walls.
"Both of the kitchens were really sad, awful," she said. "It's just scary. When you look at it now, we say, 'What possessed us to buy this house?' We can't believe we did it."
It's even more unbelievable when you learn the couple doesn't consider themselves handy. "We did some of the destruction, taking out walls and ceilings, which was fun, but we had to contract with people to do the real work," Wasowski said. "It was kind of an adventure. We really didn't know what we were getting into."
The "adventure" started immediately. One of the first tasks the couple tackled was to pull up shag carpet from a bedroom on the second floor. Beneath the rug, they found a sagging floor which led to the discovery that the first floor was never properly situated on top of the concrete pillar in the basement. In other words, the house wasn't livable, so the young couple spent the next month or so living with family.
"We think this was a mail-order house put together by someone who had no idea what he was doing," she said. "There was a lot of very weird stuff."
Subsequent renovations included an addition at the back of the house that added a master bedroom, living room and half bath; digging out the basement (during which they discovered they live over an underground stream); a backyard deck and gazebo; a second round of bathroom and kitchen renovations; and finally, just this year, a new driveway with beautifully-detailed pavers outside the detached garage.
I recently sat with Wasowski in her backyard gazebo, a large space with vaulted ceilings and the smell of wood stain, as a light rain fell on the garden. Irises bloomed just outside the screened-in room, roses beyond that and a magnificent magnolia stood sentry over the entire yard.
There's a feeling of utter serenity in her house and garden that is so different from the downtrodden look of the place captured in the photographs that she and her husband took when they first moved in. It's remarkable. But Wasowski said the two of them could always knew the transformation was possible.
"We could see the possibility in the house," she said. "I don't know if we'd do it again. We love what we've done but oh, what a process."
The House and Garden Tour is Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tickets cost $20 the day of the tour but can be bought in advance for $15 on the Del Ray Citizens Association website, www.delraycitizen.org, or at A Show of Hands. are still needed to help with the tour.