The old-but-reliable Westinghouse oven in the historic Wayside Inn, where George Washington surely must have stayed, fills the kitchen with the aroma of freshly baking pastries most mornings, as six-cheese omelets bubble and spatter on the stove.
But the days are numbered for the fancy homemade breakfasts prepared with care by owner David Balderson. The bed-and-breakfast hotel off Route 29, which is believed to date back to 1780 and many locals know as "that stone house with the candles in the windows," is for sale.
In fact, there may no longer be guest bedrooms tidied up and shifts of breakfast served daily by anyone since maintaining the property as a B&B isn't a condition of sale. The handsome Ellicott City inn where the first president of the United States likely slept can also be purchased for use as a private residence.
That possibility leaves admirers to wonder what the future holds for the million-dollar-plus property.
The inn is being marketed with a $1.2 million price tag by listing agent Elaine Northrop on behalf of the Creig Northrop Team of Long and Foster Real Estate. Since it was listed March 29, it has also been available for the turnkey price of $1.25 million, which covers the property and its contents.
Northrop said there has been good activity on the listing, especially for such a unique commercial property that's only been on the market for three months.
The Howard County landmark began life as the farmhouse on a large Ellicott City tobacco plantation, explained Balderson.
At the time, then-Gen. Washington was believed to have been traveling through the area, and, as a fellow plantation owner, he "would have stopped to pay his respects," Balderson said.
Prior to 2006, motorists had long enjoyed the glimpse of a bygone era that they were able to frequently steal of the three-story, Federal-style home situated on the west side of Route 29 — especially at night with the candles blazed. That all changed that year with the construction of noise barriers that obliterated drivers' views of the granite structure, which sits at 4344 Columbia Road between the exits to routes 103 and 108.
"Those barriers were one of the best things that ever happened to the Wayside," said Balderson, 60, who purchased it in 1998 with his wife, Susan. Located within 100 feet of busy Route 29, the B-and-B was a pretty noisy place then despite its 20-inch-thick granite walls, he said.
"We almost didn't go through with the sale after sleeping there," said the former McCormick Spice Co. executive, recalling his less-than-restful overnight stay. But, he believed the purchase was meant to be and clung to his dream, reopening for business a year after he bought it, in October 1999.
The Baldersons' decision to sell has piqued curiosity and stirred up memories.
Mary Catherine Cochran, founder of Preservation Howard County and one of the six children of former Howard County Executive Ed Cochran, remembers the Wayside Inn as a welcoming beacon when she was growing up in Clarksville in the 1960s.
"We used to drive back from visiting my grandparents in Harford County with all of us kids piled in the car and that seemed like a long trip at the time," she said. "When we saw the Wayside Inn with its candles twinkling in the windows, we knew we were almost home."
Local lore has revealed many variations of the tale explaining why the candles, long since gone electric, were always lit, Balderson said.
"I've heard so much mythology, including that a mother whose son had gone off to fight in the Civil War decided to keep them burning until he came home; and when he never returned, she kept them lit anyway," he said. Others like to say the house is haunted.
"The truth is the candles were indicative of a public house, and they showed that rooms were available," he said. For many years, a previous owner kept electric candles burning in all 35 windows, 24 hours a day — a fact, he says, that has appeared in "Ripley's Believe It or Not."
"Today, we make a show of extinguishing each guest's candle to indicate their room is no longer available," he said.
End of an era
Two years before Balderson retired from McCormick in 1998, the couple had put a 10-year plan into place with the end goal of owning and operating a bed-and-breakfast somewhere down the line. He bought six books on the topic to prepare; but just a few months after ending his 20-year career, he stumbled upon the "for sale" sign, and that was that.
"We purchased the inn within three months; though, Susan said I'd steamrolled over her," he said with a laugh.
But after 13 years, the Baldersons have set a new, two-year plan in motion that calls for him to retire as chief innkeeper and breakfast cook to seek out his next life adventure. Susan Balderson, a certified public accountant with theU.S. Justice Departmentin Baltimore, plans to continue working for several more years.
"My husband is the risk taker; I was a nervous wreck when we first bought the property," Susan Balderson said. "I definitely have mixed feelings about leaving it now, but 13 years is a long time to do this."
Since reopening the inn that sellers Margo and John Osantowski had also operated as a bed-and-breakfast for 10 of their 20 years there, the Baldersons have overseen several expansion and renovation projects.
The couple not only added two more bedrooms and three bathrooms to the four-bedroom house they had bought unfurnished for $400,000, they oversaw the building of a sun room, rooftop deck and owners' wing.
A 250-year-old white oak tree greets guests at the entrance to the front walkway, and snapping turtles emerge from a backyard pond to lay eggs beneath the pine trees. A terrace and an herb garden complete the backyard, where small weddings have been held with a 10 p.m. curfew to respect neighbors' privacy.
Some neighbors had initially protested some of the Baldersons' plans at county hearings. A floor plan's reference to an English pub that previous owners had installed for private use had opponents convinced it would become a neighborhood watering hole in a residential area, he said.
"I hate bars, and would never have wanted one," Balderson said.
After the new owners agreed to meet certain conditions — such as not opening a restaurant or gift store, or starting a catering business, none of which they'd planned to do, he said — the opposition ended.
Balderson said he expects it will take a year or two to sell the Wayside Inn, perhaps even longer in the current economy.
"The industry was hit hard by the recession, and hundreds are on the market," he said.
Sabrina Stough, an Ellicott City resident who opened the Paradise Bed & Breakfast in Catonsville in 2009, said she was in the market for a larger property when she recently discovered the Wayside Inn listing online. She had also already met the Baldersons at industry conventions, she said.
"It's a very striking property," said Stough, who made an initial offer on the property that was declined. "They have done a marvelous job of renovating and expanding it."
Stough, who said she would operate both hotels if an agreement is reached, lamented that so many of the country's landmarks are "going away, and these are places that we will never get back."
B&B owners of historic properties, which she said frequently wind up in foreclosure, "have to do what makes financial sense," she said, "but when these properties are gone forever, the community loses out in the end."
Regarding Stough's offer, Northrop is not giving up. "We haven't yet reached a meeting of the minds; but hopefully, I can bring the owner and the buyer together," she said.
Fred Dorsey, president of Preservation Howard County, said he's pleased to hear the Wayside Inn may live on as a country inn, since the only other similar properties in the county are the Inn at Peralynna, on Route 108; and the Commodore Joshua Barney House, in Savage.
"The inn provided a significant stopping place for travelers coming and going to Ellicott City, and it represents a significant time in Howard County history," Dorsey said. "It's always been well taken care of, and it's encouraging to hear it may remain a bed and breakfast."
Balderson said nothing takes higher priority than finding the right buyer.
"I'm not going to sell to any Tom, Dick or Harry," he said:
"This property has been cherished by all of its previous owners, and I will make sure that it will continue to be cherished."