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History of Arbutus residence includes Civil War and Prohibition

The Windcrest Estate at 5560 Gayland Road stands out as a beacon of a now-past era.

A majority of the houses in the quiet Arbutus neighborhood stand no more than two stories tall, sit about 25 feet apart from each other and have wood siding.

The Windcrest Estate, a three-story brick building built in 1838, sits on a 3/4 acre plot atop a hill that requires 17 steps to reach the 60-foot walkway to the porch, which has another dozen steps.

Inside, owner James Knowles showed off the estate's nine fireplaces, five to seven bedrooms, ornate wood-carved door frames and the original Georgia pine floor boards.

Other than a recently-installed furnace, the only thing new about the house is the 'For Sale' sign out front.

Knowles, 86, decided to sell the estate with a list price of $379,000 because he can no longer maintain the building after a fall three years ago left him with a head injury and broken arm and leg.

"You just can't believe all the little things you have to do," said Knowles, before descending three flights of stairs with his cane in hand.

The house's 4,025 square feet offer the potential for a variety of uses, but Knowles hopes it remains a family residence.

In its lifetime, the building served as the home of the Linthicum family, a lookout for Confederate soldiers during the Civil War, a nightclub with dancing and gambling during Prohibition and a country club and church in the early to mid 20th century.

It was added to the county's historic landmarks list in 1998, according to an article in the Arbutus Times.

"It has quite a lot of history," said Baltimore County historian John McGrain in the article.

Restoring the house took years, and Knowles came to appreciate its quirks, such as learning to cook over hot coals in the kitchen fireplace and sharing the residence with nocturnal winged critters.

"I got used to the bats," Knowles said, noting the problem has ceased since installing dampers. "I would open the door and they would fly out."

He saw the potential of the estate when he bought it in 1964 for between $10,000 and $20,000, Knowles said.

A Baltimore City native, he recalled how the real estate agent wouldn't walk through the house, claiming it was haunted.

With its numerous broken windows and a bat infestation, many others likely held a similar opinion.

Knowles, a history buff who worked at the Smithsonian as a maritime historian for more than 20 years before retiring in 1986, bought the home with an idea — to return it to its original glory.

"It was here and I thought I might as well restore it and bring it back to the way it was," Knowles said.

Knowles added some modern amenities, such as a sink and oven in the kitchen, but took care to ensure the house kept its historic charm.

The kitchen, for example, still doesn't have cabinets, because in the 19th century hutches were used instead.

"After we got some money together, we had to make some decisions," Knowles said.

One of the renovations is the installation of three Italian marble fireplaces on the main floor.

"It adds an elegance to this house that this house can carry," said his daughter, Barbara Wallick.

The half-dozen remaining fireplaces have the original slate and tile the original builders installed at some point during its 10-year construction, Knowles said.

Wallick never lived in the house as a child. She did take up residence for three years in one of the servant's quarters on the third floor when she went to Catonsville Community College in the early 1970s.

Despite having to go to sleep in the winter wearing a sweater and jeans, Wallick said she appreciated the house's quirks.

"I think it was the uniqueness of having history around me," Wallick said. "It wasn't like anybody's house I knew. And yet it always felt warm and friendly."

The house now has a two-year-old furnace and sleeping in full clothing is no longer required, Wallick noted.

Though a new furnace makes the place warmer, the house still has rope beds in several bedrooms.

Wallick recalled how after a few months on the rope bed, her mattress sagged nearly to the floor because she didn't know that she needed to tighten the ropes each month.

As a final send off to the house that meant so much to them, Knowles and his daughter threw a goodbye party for 30 family members and friends on May 6.

Wallick hired a bagpipe player as a surprise to her father, who is of Scottish descent.

"I'm glad I got to live there for those three years," Wallick said. "It was really special.

"I hope (the buyer is) somebody who loves history and loves the house and will pass it on from generation to generation," she said.

For Knowles, the sale of the house doesn't signal the end of its persistent maintenance, just the passing along of the

little joys that someone only touring the house could never fully appreciate.

"All the little things I had to do, just taking care of the house, cutting the grass and doing the 100 little things to take care

of the house," Knowles said of what he will miss about the house.

"I'm just glad to get it restored and that somebody who appreciates the place will keep up the work," Knowles said.

The house's historic nature presents a challenge, said Jeremy Walsh of the Catonsville office of Coldwell Banker,

which is the listing agent.

"We have to tailor the marketing to a specific sort of buyer," Walsh said.

"I hope (the buyer is) somebody who loves history and loves the house and will pass it on from generation to generation,"

Wallick said.

"He's just a historian at heart," she said. "He took care of the house and feels like that is his legacy. He made sure that house

was saved."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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