An old Victorian home, built of granite and dating to 1896, sits on the corner of two wide, tree-lined streets in Havre de Grace, welcoming visitors from near and far.
Carol Nemeth, has been running her "Victorian Lady" as a full-time bed-and-breakfast since 1994, seven years after she and her then-husband, Jim, purchased it in 1987.
The intention was never to turn it into a B&B, but rather to take a neglected property and bring it back to its original condition. The Nemeths had restored one home in town, but they wanted to try their hands at a larger place.
"Often, people look at deteriorating historic buildings and cannot envision the spectacular end result of a little hard work and the immense gratification that is felt as their historic building reaches its full potential," said 53-year-old Carol Nemeth, a former manager of the international department of a major bank.
"People often think that they can't do it, and they can. I also want people to know how close this house and many others like it have come to the wrecking ball."
The Nemeths paid $158,000 for the 8,000-square-foot Spencer Silver Mansion, named after the first and second owners. The previous owner had partitioned it into a doctor's office and apartments.
"A lot of the second-floor ceilings were on the floor when we arrived here," Nemeth recalled. "The side porch roof was rotted and held up by a two-by-four. Four chimneys collapsed inside themselves, and bats were flying about."
The couple and their daughter, Elizabeth, who was 2 years old at the time, lived in the house while they were fixing it up – a herculean task when Nemeth looks back on it.
All of the plumbing and wiring needed to be replaced, apartment walls torn down, carpeting pulled up, every inch of hundreds of feet of woodwork stripped and all the walls — many of which were lime-green — repainted or papered with custom-designed period wallpaper.
The couple worked side by side, day after day, for over five years while their daughter was watched over by her grandmother. And even though the couple divorced in 1997, they remain friends and Carol Nemeth credits her ex-husband for the bulk of what she refers to as "truly a labor of love."
Nemeth has been collecting antiques from the age of 14 in her hometown of Lansdale, Pa., and those furnishings — mainly from the mid- to late-19th century — fill the home and an adjoining carriage house.
In 1994, at the suggestion of another B&B owner in town, the Nemeths decided to use four of the second-floor rooms to accommodate guests. Nemeth, who wanted to spend more time with her daughter, left her banking position and became a full-time innkeeper.
Today, even as she welcomes guests into her home, she stresses that the most important job in her house is to educate people about the importance of historic preservation. She is intimately familiar with her furnishings and praises them, along with the interior architecture, as she moves from room to room.
"I love the beautiful parquet, inlaid floors, with their many intricate patterns and designs, which shine in the sunlit rooms by day, and shimmer in the evening against the softly lit antique light fixtures," she said. "I love all the little hideaway places, perfect for reading a good book, enjoying a good conversation or for quiet reflection at the end of a long day."
Nemeth also relishes climbing the grand oak staircase that ascends to a spacious landing, complete with stained-glass window.
"I never tire of watching the sun shift in the sky across the many stained-glass windows, creating various patterns of colored light against my walls and floors," she said.
Bedrooms on the second floor feature carved fireplace mantels that are a lovely focal point among the enormous headboards and fine bed linens. Even the smallest details of the home are intriguing, such as the plasterwork in the formal parlor above the elegant chandelier that is original to the house. A wrap-around porch sits in the shade of an old sycamore tree and leads out to the private garden.
"These buildings are part of our American heritage and should be protected for future generations to enjoy," Nemeth said. "Despite its grandeur, each room is imbued with a warm and cozy feeling This is a home that is deeply loved and one that reflects that love to everyone who visits her."
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