If a home is a family's castle, maybe Tom and Judy Parks should build a moat and drawbridge around theirs. Not that they're antisocial. It's just that their house, at 1837 16th St. NW, South of T Street, has attracted so much attention they're beginning to feel a bit claustrophoic.
One woman driving by recently became so enchanted she ran smack into another car -- one that beloned to a police detective.
What's all the commotion about?
To begin with, the Parkses' three-story townhouse, built in 1900, is painted a bright, shiny red. The bay windows are topped with custom-fitted stained glass. In the midst of a line of black iron fences, the Parkses' front fence is made of light pine, with a sparkling sheen and topped with round pine spheres.
At night, the lights of crystal chandeliers glisten from the first floor windows.
Then, there are the dogs. The front patio often serves as a sunning spot for the couple's dogs. This would not be so unusual, except that the Parkses have a rather extraordinary assortment of pets -- one tiny gray poodle and three colossal Great Danes.
All in all, it's more than most passersby can pass up.
"In the beginning," 38-year-old Judy Parks recalls of sitting out on the patio, "I thought it was really nice, because everybody practically would stop and ask about the house or the dogs. But after the first year I said, 'I'm getting sick of this.'"
Sometimes, lured by the chandeliers and stained glass they could see through the windows, people asked to see inside the house. Sometimes Tom, 64, invited friends in without much to the consternation of his wife, as fastidious housekeeper.
To enter the house is to leave behind the urban pace of 16th Street and set foot in another world. Once you have negotiated a peace agreement with the Great Danes -- Nashia, the all-white mother of Zeus and Zulie -- and Buffy, the gray poodle, you step into a land of heavy wood beams, carved mantel-pieces, brass and cut glass.
The bar in the basement was fashioned from a one-foot thick slab of gleaming chestnut, part of a Pennsylvania barn that contributed beams throughout the house, Mantelpieces are carved with urn-and-flower designs in several of the six fireplaces.
Century-old French crystal chandeliers hang from the 11-foot-high living room ceiling. Other extra touches are custom stained glass above all doors, beveled mirrors and sturdy pine front door, transferred from a nearby house under renovation.
Six years ago, the Parkses -- married in 1969 after meeting in a real estate office where they worked -- lived, in a three bedroom townhouse in Columbua, Md., having moved there from a rented home in Southwest Washington because, according to Judy, "it looked so much nicer out there."
But the Parkses were about to become part of the regentrification and renovation movements of the past few years, in which people dissatisfied with the suburbs headed back into the city.
The Parkses, who have no children, found the family-oriented life in Columbia offered, as Judy put it, "nothing socially for us to do." In addition, Tom's three-hour commute to his real estate business drained him.
Tom had remodeled other houses for resale, and wanted to try his first large-scale renovation. Through his business, Tom kept his eyes open for houses in the city they might buy. At first, he took Judy to see the houses, telling her not to look at them as they were, but to try to imagine how they would be.
But after Judy got a look at one house on Willard Street NW infested with cockroaches, she told him that before he took her to see any other houses he should "clean it up" first.
Tom found the house, which was at that time what Judy terms a "real dilapidated" rooming house with three tenants to a floor. He bought it in late 1974 for $20,000 and the 18-month renovation began.
After Tom had an architect draw up general plans and had them approved by the city, he had a team of workers completely "gut" the house, leaving only the floors, the outside walls and the stairway that reaches from the basement to the third floor. Tom hired some local winos to haul out the resulting debris, Judy recalled.
Tom wanted to move in after only initial renovation, but Judy insisted that the changes be completed first. So they worked to create what Tom called a "rustic" look until they finally moved in in March 1976.
That included putting heavy emphasis on wood, brass and early-American antiques. In refinishing most of the furniture, Tom learned that polyurethane finish can give old pieces a glossy shine. To keep the house comfortable, he had two furnaces and central air conditioning installed. To protect the house -- although the Great Danes really take care of that -- he added a security system.
The couple found that part of the excitement of renovation was revealing original materials. Taking plaster off the interior south wall revealed a rich red brick expanse. Scraping 10 coats of paint off the stairway -- a job that took two men one year to complete -- exposed elegant paneling.
They spent every weekened from late 1974 through 1975 looking for furniture and other items to finish their home. Since all of their previous furniture was modern and, as Judy says, "we knew a 10-foot sectional couch wouldn't fit in a house like this," they gradually sold all their modern furniture and replaced it with older and antique pieces they picked up wherever they went.
"I guess we've been to every antique place within a 150-mile radius," Judy added. Most of the collection was assembled piece by piece, she said. "I think you can be more successful that way."
They removed all but one of the existing doors and replaced them with heavy pine and oak doors. A hand-carved oak sideboard came in for the dining room, and tinted Depression glassware filled the dining room cabinets.
The couple hung an original oil portrait of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow above the Victorian red velveteen couch in the living room and ordered hand-cut glass for the bathroom window. They turned an old double bed into queensize by removing the footboard and using it to widen the headboard. Their electrician "went crazy," Judy said, because all the lighting fixtures had been modeled for gas light.
The couple often takes a lighthearted view of some of their purchases. Tom said a mirror hanging in the bathroom is more than 100 years old and was believed to have hung in the White House. He added, laughing, that the person he bought it from "gave me the history of it. I don't know whether it was to sell it, or for real, but I bought it."
Judy often reacted with skepticism to the purchases. "I thought my husband had gone crazy," she recalled. "He'd buy all these things that looked like they should be in the junkyard, and then he'd start polishing them up and I'd begin to say, 'You know. . . .'"
On visits to Judy's hometown, Sturbridge, Mass., and Tom's hometown, Edgefield, S.C., they found relatives and friends willing to part with what was regarded as trash. From Judy's aunt in Sturbridge came a massive wagon wheel, which now hangs above the basement bar with glasses suspended from it, and a wooden hand-washing machine with a metal wheel that moves the agitator.
From South Carolina came wood for some of their walls, wood that once formed the walls of a church Tom's great-grandfather attended. Church members were demolishing the old building to erect a brick church and planned to use the wood as firewood. Tom packed some of it in his car trunk instead.
After months of work on the showpiece house, Tom recalls, "I got discouraged because it looked like it was taking too long."
Judy, a part-time medical secretary, recalled, "A lot of my family said, "You're too old to be doing something like this.' I though it was a fantasy of his, so I said to myself, 'Let him go on; I have a roof over my head.' I never believed I would ever live in the house."
When they started, they say, it was the first renovation effort in the neighborhood. Judy would see people boozing across the street, and children would throw candy wrappers on their front patio.
But Tom took to hosing down the sidewalk in front of their house and laid bricks around the trees on the block. Gradually, Judy noticed parents telling their children not to throw trash in the parks yard. Other people moved in and started fixing up nearby homes.
Now the neighborhood is, Judy says, "well-integrated," including black, white, Oriental, Irish, Jewish and homosexual residents. She adds with a smile, "We all really get along."
They spend most of their time in the basement and bedroom, but have had parties for 100 and once, in 1977, a wedding and reception for a friend.
The renovation cost well over $150,000, they sayd. "We didn't have the money in the bank to do it," said Judy, but they spent it as they earned it.
"We didn't live as luxuriously as this at one time," Judy said. "But we knew what we wanted, and we tried [to get it]. We still don't have everything we want."
In fact, they say they'd like to live in a smaller house some day, but would not be willing to sell their current house for less than $350,000. Not reasonable, they note, since a house of comparable size nearby was divided into two units, which sold for $187,000 each.
The Parkses find the fame of "that house on 16th Street" and their dogs can crop up where they least expect it. Recently, Tom chuckled, "We were in Atlantic City and I was trying to make myself a quarter, and someone, came up and said, 'Aren't you the man on 16th Street -- you've got the dogs and that house with the wood fence?'"