Renovating a home is like living in the wild — you do whatever it takes to survive! In the hilarious 1986 comedy “The Money Pit,” Tom Hanks and Shelley Long encounter a series of disasters when they naively attempt to renovate a mansion. They were completely unprepared for the cost and stress involved because of unexpected problems that emerged.
Jane Keller and Gordon Bjorkman faced some of these same challenges when they purchased Granny Branch Farm near Church Hill in 2005. In contrast to “The Money Pit,” Jane and Gordon’s renovation project not only has created a wonderfully transformed historical home with all the warmth and charm one could expect from a Hallmark movie, but also has enhanced their rich and harmonious 15-year marriage.
This restored home also serves as the perfect design studio for Jane. If you are considering a renovation project, this is a success story that will encourage, inspire, and offer helpful pointers.
Known to the Maryland Historical Trust as the James Marshall Farm (circa 1735), this 3-acre historical enclave starkly contrasts its neighboring modern homes. Bordered by more than 400 native trees, and with lush boxwoods lining hand-laid brick paths that wind between peony and iris gardens, this is the idyllic setting for this authentic three-story center hall colonial. The pastoral picture of Granny Branch farm, originally a dairy farm, is completed by five iconic red outbuildings (including a three-story granary with a wooden plaque signed by the builders in 1845).
Jane, a successful professional interior designer (www.kellerinteriordesign.com), grew up in Annapolis living in historic homes. Jane and Gordon came to the Eastern Shore with a clear and unified vision for what they were seeking.
“We wanted a place where family and friends could gather as others have done for centuries … where we could imagine the conversations of times past… and where the exposed bricks, beams, and windows with hand-blown glass allow one to touch something real and lasting in a transitory and technological world. And finally, we wanted the satisfaction of knowing that we had preserved a piece of history.”
When they discovered Granny Branch Farm, they knew they had come home. With a delightful lilt to her voice, Jane chuckled as she shared, “It was love at first sight — but only if you had a good imagination. Some of my friends with vision knew what it could become … while others thought I had clearly lost my mind.”
THE BEFORE PHOTOS
Jane and Gordon knew the supply of historic homes was limited, and they could therefore not afford to summarily dismiss a home due to location, exterior, or first impressions. Despite being greeted by a comical flock of pink plastic flamingoes in the front yard, and a miniature lighthouse with a rubber turtle on top whose eyes blinked red and green, Jane and Gordon looked beyond the superficial to analytically assess the setting, structure, and condition of the home.
The Flemish bond brickwork was in good shape, the original brick structure built in 1735 still retained traces of its colonial heritage and was in good shape (Gordon is a structural engineer by training), and the past owners had all done their part to create an arborist’s dream. They knew they had a winner and went on to purchase Granny Branch Farm.
One of Jane's most important tips to home renovation? Don’t undertake more than your time, talent, and resources allow.
Renovation projects can be partial or total, and each situation is unique. Restoring a home requires the ability to look at bad things and see what they could become. As a seasoned interior design professional for more than 25 years (and recipient of more than 30 awards) Jane said, “It is imperative to create a priority list. There are so many things to be done, but you have to have a plan.”
Jane said homeowners looking to renovate must ask yourself questions such as: How much do we want to do? What is our budget? What can we live with?
Once a plan is in place, the next step is to create a clean canvas. Contractors of every type were needed to remove wallpaper, paint walls, restore fireplaces, remove low stucco ceilings and outdated shag carpet, and update plumbing and electric.
“You have to love history to live in a home like this,” Gordon said.
THE AFTER PHOTOS
Jane and Gordon love history, art, and antiques. They said they did not want to completely modernize the interior, but instead chose to blend contemporary with historic. For example, the kitchen blends modern appliances with an open-beamed cathedral ceiling and spotlights.
There are unique challenges to renovating older homes. For instance, there is no ducting, so you must add ductless heating and cooling sources. Jane and Gordon used a “mini-split,” a unit that goes on a wall. And instead of smoothing over imperfections on their walls, they painted over them to maintain the original texture.
Storage is another challenge. Jane and Gordon used armoires and converted the smallest bedroom into a walk-in closet. Combining space also is important — the master bathroom happens also to house the furnace and washer and dryer.
“Older homes can be quirky, but that is part of the charm,” Jane said.
It has been a 12-year labor of love for Jane and Gordon to get Granny Branch Farm to this point, and they readily admit that they could probably work another 5 years on it.
“There’s always something else you can do. One thing is certain… perfectionists don’t buy older homes,” Jane said.
And yet, perfection seems almost within grasp when you enjoy the genuine beauty created by Jane and Gordon in their magnificent historic home.