Twofer: Cottage, terraces double the fun

ADDRESS: 526-528 North First Street (two houses)

NEIGHBORHOOD: North Downtown

ASKING: $1,075,000


SIZE: Main House: 3,869 fin. sq. ft., 905 unfin.

Second House: (526 N. First St.): 1,483 fin. sq. ft.

LAND: 0.25 acres

CURB APPEAL: 10 out of 10

LISTED BY: Kay Robinson, Montague, Miller & Co. 466-8889

Let's face it. Looks matter. Studies show that jurors are more sympathetic to attractive defendants. Last weekend, the handsomest guys and prettiest girls were kings and queens of the prom. And all the work with underprivileged children or proficiency with a baton notwithstanding, it's Miss America's slink down the runway in a bathing suit that seals the win.

Houses are no different. This modified "Carpenter Gothic" at the end of First Street has enjoyed all the acclaim a beauty expects: a highpoint of Garden week, a spot on the Meals on Wheels kitchen tour, and prominent mention in UVA prof K. Edward Lay's Architecture of Jefferson Country.

But– as some dates undoubtedly discovered on Saturday night– looks go only so far when you're thinking of a lifetime commitment. As our moms always told us, it's what's inside that counts. And this house wins on that score, too.

For starters, its location among other impressive renovations on one of North Downtown's most desirable streets doesn't hurt. From the shady yard, subtle blues on the exterior lead through double front doors to a large entrance room accented with bright yellow. Symmetry here is a result of the original two-over-two design: formal living room on one side and mahogany library opposite, both with coal-burning fireplaces.

At the end of the hall, the famous kitchen dazzles with cherry cabinets, granite counters, and professional appliances. A formal dining room and powder room complete the first floor. Previous owners seem to have been obsessed with faux marbling on mantels, but that's the only quasi-kitschy touch. There's no fuzzy red wallpaper anywhere.

The front staircase twists to a second-story landing with little steps to three bedrooms (two with coal fireplaces and the funky faux marble of downstairs), a full bath, and an enormous laundry room. Another three-step zigzag leads to a back bedroom with lots of built-in storage.

The eye-popping third floor/attic could have been air-lifted onto the top of the house from some chrome and glass condo in Tribeca. An open clawfoot tub and sky-lighted shower provide glorious urban view of rooftops and steeples across the terraced Tuscan backyard. Myriad cabinets and closets amid sharply angled half-walls would be easy to remove if someone wanted to make this the master bedroom suite– and we can't imagine why someone wouldn't.

Access to the backyard– which has been usurped by a complicated multi-level deck and the au pair house/guest quarters– is through a walk-out basement that's been decorated to be a playroom. Here is more storage, bathroom facilities, and a gardening room that could translate into another self-contained living area.

The terraces down to Second Street are certainly some of the most impressive landscaping in town, with herb gardens, a peony hedge, roses, and a wisteria-covered loggia. The Second Street lot is not developable as currently constituted, but someone who would think of destroying this dramatic backyard for filthy lucre has no business looking at this house in the first place.

A two-story house back here was built in 1930. It has been lovingly cared for and is currently being used for an au pair, but it's a legal rental unit– with potential rent of $1,400/month. This house is not as grand, but shows well with lots of light, hardwood floors, and a livable floor plan.

In addition to the potential rental income, an $88,000 tax abatement that conveys with the house (through 2009) should help to soften the blow of the million-plus asking price. But let's face it (again). People for whom the price is an issue won't be looking at this house anyway.

After all, it's Donald Trump, not Willy Loman, who gets to marry Marla and Melania.