REAL ESTATE- ON THE BLOCK- Rock on: See the East in Keswick

ADDRESS: 5311 Owl Alley Lane


ASKING: $464,900

2005 COUNTY ASSESSMENT: $231,300


SIZE: 2,082 fin. sq. ft.

LAND: 2.84 acres

CURB APPEAL: 9 out of 10

LISTED BY: Roger Voisinet of RE/MAX Realty Specialists, 974-1500

It's hard to say whether it's better to show a house empty or furnished. As with many situations, the answer is probably "It depends."

If the furniture is clunky, overstuffed Salvation Army stock, clearing it out seems wise– charming elements of the house can shine without the distraction of shag carpets and three-legged dressers. On the other hand, if the furnishings are so much a part of the place that imagining the space without them is difficult, the house may appear more appealing than it will be when the birds-eye maple desk and vintage Chinese rugs have been loaded into the Ryder truck and carted away.

The latter is the case with this sleek contemporary in Keswick. The owner has not only decorated her home with mementos from her extensive world travels, but she's a craftswoman of no small talent who has built many of the cabinets, desks, tables, shelves, and bookcases that make the house unique.

The most unusual feature is the original builder's use of stone. And it's unusual for a couple of reasons. Not only was stone used to face an entire exterior wall and create the 18-foot-high fireplace that defines the center of the house, but it's built using what the owner calls a "dry rock" construction method in which no mortar is visible. The effect of these huge walls of gray river stone is beautiful– if a bit imposing. (Not that "imposing" is necessarily bad.)

In addition to the living room– which the agent calls the "great room" for some mysterious reason (it's not great, sizewise)– the first floor consists of two bedrooms, a full bath, and kitchen. There's a big wrap-around deck on two sides as well as a small porch off the kitchen leading to a fenced-in yard.

The owner is using one of the bedrooms as an office and one as the dining room. Creating a first-floor office is obviously a good idea, as it seems unlikely that many families would want two bedrooms on the main level.

But using what was clearly meant to be a bedroom as a dining room is problematic, even considering clever design elements the owner has incorporated– like decorated bi-fold doors enclosing a closet with the washer/dryer. There's no natural connection to the kitchen, making its choice as a dining room arbitrary and a little awkward.

Everything else about the first level, however, is striking. The owner has made little changes that have a big impact, creating a lighted alcove display "altar" that she says is common in the Far East, a neat little bookshelf under the stairs beside an enclosed entertainment cabinet, and beautiful wood room dividers inside the front door to create the impression of a small foyer. The changes are ingenious as well as works of art.

The kitchen, although extensively modified over the years from the original, is nevertheless a perfect complement to the ubiquitous wood and airy design of the house. A custom-made center island on wheels sports a bookshelf on one end and deep drawers on another side. Porcelain tiles on the floor with silvery fish-scale-like inserts add sparkle to the solidity of the custom oak cabinets. Except for a ho-hum fluorescent light over the island, the room looks like it stepped out of a "fine homes" magazine.

There are three full baths in the house, two original. Those two have unusual built-in angled cabinets around the over-sink mirrors, and the one on the first floor has sophisticated glimmering wallpaper that, like the kitchen tiles, is a perfect foil to all the wood. Our old nemesis, those Motel-6-style fiberglass tub surrounds, are the only disappointing note here.

The third full bath was added by the owner, created from a walk-in closet in the upstairs master bedroom. Because the closet had no window, the space seemed like a "cave," she says, and she played to that feeling by installing a rock wall over the new Jacuzzi. Lots of mirrors, stair rails brought back from Bali to create an airy opening at ceiling level, and lovely sliding shoji screen doors relieve what would in fact resemble a cave because of the big rocks in the wall and the lack of windows. The conversion has created two master suites, as the former single full bath now goes with the fourth bedroom. These are the kinds of personal, unusual touches that make the house unique.

The design elements are accentuated by handmade furniture, decorative objets d'art from all over the world, and elegant fabrics and rugs. The effect is gorgeous, and it's hard to imagine that the space– as beautiful as the wood, stone, and setting are– could possibly be quite so alluring when all the accoutrements are removed.

But perhaps potential buyers will have their own cache of chattels to give the house an entirely different vibe, one that makes the place feel like home to them.