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Exteriors: A surprise for Maria 

An Italian villa appears in a Henrico County back yard.

click to enlarge maria1.jpg

Maria, a native of Rome, hadn't been back in more than a decade. Steve imagined a dramatic surprise makeover, a la TLC's popular show "While You Were Out," that would give their yard the feel of an Italian villa. He planned to build a deck, plant flowers and install a courtyard with a fountain — all while Maria was away for the weekend.

But could he do it?

Ever since Steve and Maria (who requested their last name not be used) moved to their leafy Henrico neighborhood in 1998, he says, he had concocted grand plans for the back yard. But aside from installing a swing set and planting a small vegetable garden, little had been done.

Steve first asked his old friend Mike Miller, who has 30 years of experience in construction, what he thought: "I said, 'Mike, tell me if I'm crazy, and if I'm out of my head, just smack me.'"

Miller didn't smack him. Instead, Miller volunteered to be Steve's foreman.

To help keep the project a secret, Steve told Maria that he and the guys were going to install a privacy fence and on Friday, June 16, sent her and their two sons to stay with a family friend in Reedsville.

Organizing the crew was a challenge, Miller says, but there was no shortage of willing hands. More than 55 people — friends, family and others who just wanted to help — worked for some portion of the weekend. Many of them were members of Maria's family, who naturally took a break from their labors to watch Italy play the United States in the World Cup.

Unexpected gifts arrived. "Can you use a door?" inquired a friend of a friend who sold them. And — voilà — a Pella door showed up, along with planters of herbs and flowers, a pile of lumber, a double Adirondack chair, an olive tree and an orange tractor for loan. "We'd be all weekend moving the shrubs if we hadn't had that," Miller says.

Fueled by 15 pounds of barbecue, 100 cups of coffee and two cases of beer, the crew cut through the master bedroom wall and installed French doors, redid the landscaping in the front, built a two-level deck and, on a whim, constructed a sturdy treehouse around the maple tree in the center of the yard. Oh yes, and raised a privacy fence too.

"I've done more in two days than I've done in eight years," said a weary but smiling Steve.

Nephew Alex, 10, said he was the "universal intern guy" — nailing, carrying and sweeping. He was eager to see Maria's reaction, he says: "It'll bring a tear to her eye, I know it."

He was right. By Sunday evening, not everything was finished; the fountain remained in its box and lumber still littered the yard. But it was time for Maria to come home.

When she walked into the back yard, she was overcome. "I started crying and I didn't even realize it," Maria said.

Now, two months since the surprise, the creation of a peaceful refuge is almost complete. Steve has hung a hammock and is working on a sandbox. All that remains is some painting and electrical work and the completion of the little courtyard. A reunion for the crew is planned for Sept. 30.

And Maria can sit on her deck and watch their two boys play. "This is our yard," she said. "It's hard to believe."

Seeing her reaction was a joy for Steve, he said: "This is my dream, you know, to have this for her." HS

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