Home Again

Deborah Holmes

Pleasant Plains mural
A new canvas wall mural of Pleasant Plains Farmhouse graces the center hall. Inset is a photo of the house as it stands today.

"Growing up at Pleasant Plains was like living in a Tom Sawyer novel," recalls Philip Dodds of his childhood on an Annapolis, Maryland, farm.

Back then, the deep waters of Ridout Creek flowed past hundreds of acres of farmland. Barns and sheds held raw materials for boy-built boats and other inventions.

And there was the house itself, the centerpiece of Pleasant Plains. The two-and-a-half story 1830 brick colonial was often filled with poets, artists, musicians and other friends of Philip's parents.

Today, nearly 50 years later, Philip Dodds' pleasant childhood memories are bumping up against the thousands of real-world decisions that must be made as part of restoring an antique house that has suffered from decades of benign neglect.

Dodds and his wife, Susan, have spent the past 10 months restoring and renovating their 170-year-old home. They've done a lot of the project direction and even the physical work themselves -- but they've also spent $400,000 bringing in the best materials and the best tradesmen they could find.

And now, with the work pretty much completed, they're opening their home's doors to the world at large for a few weeks.

An estimated 10,000 visitors will troop through Pleasant Plains between now and Oct. 23, 2000 to view their work. The house is a Designer Show House, and a major fundraiser for the Anne Arundel Medical Center Auxiliary.

dining room
The formal dining room, just off the center hallway.


So, what's it like to restore a house from well-loved, but a touch shabby, to designer show-house quality?

Well, for starters, the house needed new wiring and plumbing, a new heating system and central air conditioning. Years of water damage left crumbling plaster in nearly every room. All three floors and the kitchen wing needed to be taken back to the studs and re-plastered.

Then there was the structural work.

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Even with repairs, the outside rear wall is noticeably bowed. Metal stars tie the wall to the opposite side of the house.

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"The interior layer of brick simply collapsed as we worked on repairing the wall," says Philip. "It was very, very scary!" (Photo: Dodds)


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The kitchen wing after some demolition. Notice the crude stairway, and 1960s style fireplace. (Photo: Dodds)

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The kitchen wing, with new stairwell and a fireplace that replicates the original

(Click on pictures for larger view.)

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Philip's architectural models of the kitchen stairs and molding hang in the basement project "nerve center."

An old steel retaining plate that held the wing together was removed, exposing areas that didn't get the re-pointed 14 years ago. (Photo: Dodds)

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An understatement: Mason Bill Forsythe repairs the arch over the window, which he noted had "relaxed" a bit. Philip reports that the arch was hanging "by a hair." (Photo: Dodds)

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Spanning history: Philip Dodds keeps track of construction details on his laptop computer perched on a Civil War-era desk in the basement of his 1830 home. (Photo: Dodds)

The extent of the structural damage could not be determined until the demolition began. The brick wall on the rear exterior of the house bowed alarmingly -- so much so that structural engineers were reluctant to work on repairs.

Damage to the wall was caused by the bane of most old houses -- moisture. The rain gutter on the back side of the house sloped down toward the kitchen wing. Rain collected in a low spot, and then overflowed and cascaded straight down the brick wall. To make matters worse, ivy clung to the wall. This loosened the soft oyster shell and sand mortar and wicked moisture to the inside walls and floor joists.

When the plaster was torn away, the full extent of the damage could be seen.

The floor joists for the second floor sagged five inches. The second floor, long since pulled away from the support of the bowing outer wall, was supported by a rotted false wall. The entire weight of the slate roof rested on the fragile outer wall.

The water damage and resulting overload caused the outer wall to bow out several inches. The wall was originally two-bricks thick, but the inner and outer brick layers had sheared, breaking the tie bricks entirely.

Damn the engineers! Full-speed ahead

Philip and Sue Dodds
Philip and Sue Dodds: Smiling through the project

In the tradition of his Navy family, Philip decided to move full-speed ahead, undaunted by the fears of the structural engineers.

Creative, inventive and an engineer himself (of electronics systems), Philip enlisted some lessons from a master mason. He then repaired the wall, re-tying the inner and outer brick layers and working upwards to establish a new solid bearing wall. This time, the wall would support only the roof. The second floor is held up with a false interior wall, to keep it from bearing on the fragile outer wall.

Finally, Philip traveled to Baltimore to buy metal stars, a decorative touch that serves a structural purpose. The stars are fixed with 24-foot, all-thread bolts which run under the second floor between the joists, and keep the walls from pulling away from the house.

The work in the wing put the project one-month behind schedule, but the entire project was still completed in only 10 months.

Inside jobs

Girl's bedroom
The front upstairs bedroom, transformed into a little girl's bedroom. Decorating ideas such as these are one reason Sue Dodds likes being part of a Designer Show House.

The work accomplished inside is just as impressive.

The house needed new bathrooms and a new kitchen. Grand hallways that were buried as closets were re-opened. Original stairwells were refinished. Old floor boards were carefully pulled up, the floors leveled, and the boards replaced and hand finished.

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The music room, with original score from movie, "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."

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Formal front parlor

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New custom upper cabinets contrast with Victorian-style lower cabinets

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Custom shutters in the kitchen


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A tiny half-bath tucked under the main stairwell contrasts with...
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...the elegant bathroom on the second floor (with clawfoot tub that's been used in Pleasant Plains for decades).
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An upstairs bedroom, done with reproduction, hand-painted wallpaper


(Click on pictures for larger view.)

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Fireplace in upstairs bedroom with original mantle and woodwork



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Master bedroom with newly plastered and stenciled walls
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Mural of a fog-shrouded Ridout Creek, which flows past Pleasant Plains
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Philip will trade -- gladly -- his temporary basement office for this elegant upstairs study.
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The new family room in the kitchen room, with built-in cabinets

An elegant curved fireplace once again became the focal point of the kitchen. Philip designed himself and built a set of stairs from the kitchen to the upstairs. These steps replaced an awkward barn-like set with 8" risers.

Everywhere in the house, pieces of woodwork were missing. Replacements were carefully drawn by Philip, then crafted by master carpenters, largely from wood recycled from other parts of the house.

The new kitchen contains design elements from Philip's boyhood home, like the lower cabinets styled like Victorian furniture.


New windows were built by hand, in keeping with the style of the original windows, and then glazed with antique glass.

"Essentially we ended up building a whole new house in the shell of the old house," says Susan.

But the Dodds did much more than build something new out of something old. They remained faithful to the style and fabric of the old house. The re-built walls are real plaster, created by a meticulous master craftsman. The kitchen fireplace, rebuilt in the 1960s from cinderblock, was replaced with an elegant curved fireplace, based on the original footprint.

While trying to remain true to the home's 1830s origins, Philip also wanted it to reflect the much more recent tenure of his family.

Kitchen cabinets from Philip's childhood were a collection of marble-topped Victorian tables and dressers. The new cabinets in the new kitchen are reminiscent of vintage furniture.

The paintings of Missy Weems Dodds, Philip's mother, grace the house. An art studio offers a view of the creek. An easel silently stands, as though waiting for Philip's mother to produce another of her impressionistic abstract paintings.

In the music room, a mural of the musical score from the movie, "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," consumes a wall. Philip was the vice president of engineering for Kurzweil, the company that produced the haunting electronic music for the movie. Philip played a part in the film.

Last minute frenzy

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Last minute landscaping

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A side porch, getting ready for the gala Show House party

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This original newel post awaits finishing in the last day before the Show House

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The finished center staircase, with canvas mural beneath

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A painting by Philip's mother depicts the same copper kettle nestled atop the kitchen cupboard

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The Bordley Randall House, c. 1714, which the Dodds also did as a Show House a decade ago

(Click on pictures for larger view.)

It's the day before the grand gala party kicking off the Show House.

Shop vacuums vie for space with elegant antique silver sets. Carpenters scramble to finish molding details. Gardeners install plants and brick pathways. The pagers and cell phones that Sue and Philip wear on their hips are relentlessly beeping, insisting on last-minute decisions that only they can make.

"Sue, I just can't get behind the toilet upstairs to replace a piece of molding without hours of work," a trim carpenter complains.

"Don't bother until after the Show House," Sue replies, making one of hundreds of snap decisions this day.

Satisfied with that answer, the carpenter hustles off to another part of the house.

Philip refills his coffee cup -- again. He looks excited, proud, sleep deprived. Sue looks at the tiny gnats trapped in a freshly painted door stoop and bursts out laughing.

"Oh, bugs in my paint," she shrugs. "I guess I'll have to clean that before tomorrow."

One has to admire the grace and humor with which Philip and Sue handle the last minute frenzy. Even more remarkable is that they've been through this all before.

Pleasant Plains is the second Show House the Dodds have done in a decade. Ten years ago, their 1714 Bordley Randall House, also in Annapolis, served as a Show House for the medical auxiliary. While older, that house was in considerably better shape structurally.

The Dodds spent nearly $400,000 -- twice what they had anticipated -- renovating Pleasant Plains. That figure would have been double, Philip estimates, had he not served as contractor for the project. He and Sue also contributed much of the sweat equity involved.

Surprisingly, perhaps, the Dodds have no direct connection with the Anne Arundel Medical Center, which will benefit from their efforts. They simply picked the hospital as a worthy charity for a project the two of them undertook for different reasons.

And what might those reasons be?

"I love project management," Philip says without hesitation. "The challenge of working on a deadline. Take this massive, unpredictable project then it all comes together, within one month of the deadline -- that's the kick for me."

He proudly boasts on never have a single day of "down time" during the project, carefully juggling the schedules of carpenters, electricians, plumbers, and plasterers on a wall-sized whiteboard in his temporary basement office.

Sue's reward is in getting decorating ideas for the house. Once the Show House is finished, the elegant furnishings, draperies, even the landscaping will be removed.

Family treasures stored in a new barn built on the property will be restored and once again be in Pleasant Plains.


Read the Dodds' online restoration journal->


About the Author
By Deborah Holmes, The Old House Web

Search Improvement Project