Auction?s ?ugly baby? makes elegant transition

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Local,Entertainment,Allegra Bennett
Finishing off a cup of homemade espresso, Onahlea Shimunek looked around the kitchen she designed in the 1840s mansion she renovated and made a pronouncement: “If I were to design a house again I would leave out the living room and dining room and make it all kitchen. That’s where all the action is.”

Action is the one word that perfectly describes Shimunek, the energetic general manager of the Marriott at Camden Yards and part owner of the popular Spirits of Mount Vernon wine store in Baltimore.

Shimunek had been commuting from her home in Springfield, Va., to Baltimore for a while when she stumbled across a Mount Vernon house auction notice a few years ago.

“I thought the idea was kind of neat. I had never been to an auction before,” she said. She went and when the auctioneer called out “sold” Shimunek had become the wide-eyed new owner of a 19th-century mansion that had sat unoccupied for three years, was besmirched with indoor-outdoor carpet, sported boarded-up fireplaces and was home to colonies of termites living in every window. “It was an ugly baby,” she said laughing at the memory. Still, “I was in love with it. I could see the potential.”


The vision of potential went a long way. Though Shimunek had never renovated or designed a house before, she went ahead and took it on anyway, using the services of another first-timer, Tim Prager, a contractor who until this house had never done a big residential project before.

The two hired help and worked through the interior restoration. Shimunek was so at peace with the project that when she got a call at work that the second floor at the back of the house was threatening to drop to the first, she told the workers to get to safety and just let it go.

That decision resulted in an accidental design that is now a magnificent two-story sitting area extending about 12 feet from the edge of the open-plan kitchen to the back of the house. Fond of cooking, one of Shimunek’s favorite spots is the kitchen work counter. There, with a requisite glass of fine wine near at hand and classical music in the air she entertains guests while preparing a challenging recipe.

From her creative cooking station she can see through the sliding doors out into the side yard where an artist painted a scene of her favorite view of Tuscany from a cooking school visit there. Her beloved grandmother, Helen, seated at a table has been painted into the art. 

The 6,000 square-foot house with its antique Tennessee marble and chandeliers retains the period feel. Shimunek added a wine cellar, of course, where visitors are encouraged to sample and dance. “It’s easy living here,” Shimunek said. “You can sit on a couch and relax. There’s no place here that is stuffy.”

Onahlea Shimunek’s style
  • STYLE PHILOSOPHY: You want to be able to use every room. There’s no place here that’s not comfortable.
  • STYLE SECRETS: Friend and designer Eric Lawrence
  • COMFORT VS. STYLE: I prefer comfort over style. I work in corporate America, where style is everything. When I come home — I want comfort. This is not to say that I do not consider my home stylish. Simply speaking, when I want to experience style, I’ll spend a weekend at the Ritz. 
  • COLOR VS. TEXTURE: They are equally important, although I do love leather because it just gets better looking and more comfortable with age.
  • FAVORITE COLOR:  Hunter green; except on Ravens game day, when I wear purple.
  • MUST HAVES IN YOUR HOUSE: A chilled bottle of Grand Cru Champagne.
  • MOST BELOVED OBJECT: My mom’s doll collection, and my dad’s West Point dinner plates.
  • I WOULD NEVER: Tell my two mastiffs (Isabel and Boris) that they are not allowed in any room in the house — regardless of their schmutz (her word for drool).
  • FAVORITE DESIGNERS: Ralph Lauren & Martha Stewart
  • MOST UNUSUAL THING ABOUT ME : I love playing the stock market.
  • HOT TIP: Only cook with wine that you enjoy drinking. 
  • LIFE ADVICE:  You can never have too many friends or too many bottles of great wine.
  • WORDS TO GROW BY: Family first
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