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Docent training starts at Johns Hopkins' vaunted Evergreen museum and library

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The Evergreen Museum & Library features vast collections of art and rare books, and its own Bakst Theatre

Three or four days a week, retiree Robin Tress walks two miles to work and back as a volunteer docent at Johns Hopkins University's Evergreen Museum & Library.

"I get my exercise," said Tress, 70, a former longtime employee in the telecommunications department of M&T Bank, and a docent since last year.

But Tress said she also works as a docent, or tour guide, at the 17-acre Evergreen, at 4545 N. Charles St., to satisfy her love of history, theater, art, music and rare books, all of which Evergreen embraces, as well as a love of learning and sharing her knowledge with the public.

"I did not want to stop learning when I retired," Tress said, adding that she didn't want to man a hospital reception desk and tell people where the bathrooms were.

When Marius and Ludmilla Barbu, of Wilmington, Del., showed up in the gift shop for a tour as soon as the museum opened at 10 a.m. on Friday, Oct. 9, Tress was waiting for them. She quickly warmed to her work, showing the couple not only Evergreen's vast art and rare book collections and Bakst Theatre — which was designed by the Russian set designer Leon Bakst — but also such details as its reception room with green and white stenciled plaster walls, a painting from the Paris Exposition of 1867, and a Tiffany lamp donated by the family that owned the old Hutzler's department stores in Baltimore.

She also took pains to tell the story of two generations of the Garrett family, which owned Evergreen not only as showcase of art and wealth, but as a house well-lived in, right down to the prominently displayed portrait that arts patroness and amateur artist Alice Warder Garrett painted of the family dog, a Boston terrier named Boston Baked Beans.

There seemed to be little that Tress didn't know about Evergreen, other than how high its ceilings are.

Tress is one of 40 docents who work varying schedules, or on call, at the internationally known museum and library. Evergreen is always looking for more tour guides and does four sessions of docent training in the spring and fall. The next sessions are from 10 a.m. to noon on four consecutive Mondays, Oct. 19, and 26 and Nov. 2 and 9. Five people have signed up so far.

The docents' mission is to tell the museum's visitors, in detail and with passion, about the history and owners of an Italianate country house built by Stephen Broadbent in the 1858, with central heating, indoor plumbing, landscaped grounds and carved mantelpieces in each room.

In 1878, John Work Garrett, president of the B&O Railroad, purchased the house for his son, T. Harrison Garrett. The latter's son, also John Work Garrett, a diplomat and ambassador to Italy (and husband of Alice Warder Garrett), inherited the house in 1920.

The docent program began in 1990, when the museum and library opened to the public. Guided tours are required, partly to protect the historic collections from theft or damage.

"The first rule of the house is that you have to have someone with you," said longtime docent and trainer Pat Paquin, of Cross Keys. "There are so many things that are out or not under cases."

But docents also help visitors feel "comfortable and engaged," said Evergreen's director and curator, James Abbott, 52, of Tuscany-Canterbury.

Most of the docents are in their 50s or older, although some are Hopkins students. Docents get perks such as gift ship discounts and first dibs on Evergreen-sponsored trips, such as to New York City to see lesser known attractions, Abbott said.

Docents also get a lot of support from Evergreen's small staff, including tour coordinator Nancy Powers, of Lutherville, who schedules docents and works to their schedules.

Labor of love

But the biggest draw for potential docents is the 48-room museum on 26 acres, with gardens and greenhouses, a tea house, a carriage house and a stable that can be viewed on self-guided tours of the grounds.

"Once (docents) get involved in the house and learn about it, they fall in love with it," Powers said.

"It is not a standard museum or locked into any particular identity," Abbott said. He added that Evergreen constantly is adding to its collections, making it a venue for contemporary artists, as well as concerts, special exhibitions, lectures and symposiums, and a teaching tool for students from Hopkins, area colleges and high schools, and groups such as garden clubs. It's also a rental venue for weddings and other special events.

"Our future is with the audience and we're fortunate enough to change with our audience," Abbott said.

To keep the public interested, Evergreen must recruit docents and pique their interest.

"It's a competitive world out there for volunteers. We try to make it as interesting as possible for our guides," said Abbott, who has led Evergreen for eight years and is former curator of decorative arts for the Baltimore Museum of Art. "You want someone who is interested and who is comfortable sharing information," and even following it up with their own research. "You really want people who are going to take that (training) and run with it."

Paquin, a retired teacher for Baltimore County Public Schools, was a docent at the Walters Art Museum for 17 years and has been giving tours at Evergreen for 13 or 14 years. She switched because she liked Evergreen and its collections, and because it was a chance to do more tours for adults rather than children, she said.

"I very much like the house because it's full of history and the more you learn about it, the more you can tell on your tour," Paquin said.

For example, Paquin said, Alice Warder Garrett wanted to know more about the arts to better promote them, even learning to play castanets and do Spanish folk dances.

"She learned to paint, dance and sing," Paquin said.

Docents must give acceptable tours to their trainers to complete their training, Paquin said. She said the success rate has been good, and that all six of the docents who trained at the session last spring still work as docents.

Being a good docent is about more than having a working knowledge of the house.

"It's the ability to connect with the public in a positive way (and) understanding that the house was a home for the people who lived there," Paquin said. She said many of Evergreen' docents have worked as docents elsewhere or are former teachers, so they're comfortable speaking to groups.

"There are people who start taking the class and think, 'This isn't for me,'" said Whitman, 75, a former eighth grade English teacher in Baltimore, who also volunteers at an information desk at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.

For her, "It's fun. If it wasn't fun, I would stop doing it."

Sarah Hanson, 79, of north Baltimore County, has been a docent at Evergreen since the program started, and was a docent at Hopkins' Homewood House before that.

"People come from everywhere," said Hanson, who grew up in Baltimore. "It's interesting to tell them about the Garrett family. I like history. I like talking about the city."

Evergreen 'explainer'

Tress was in her element as she took the Barbus, from Delaware, on a two-hour tour. They were properly impressed by the long, narrow Bakst Theatre; a bathroom with gold plating; a big library with 8,000 volumes, including rare early Audubon bird books and an extremely rare Shakespeare "first folio" edition; a large kitchen with a double sink, silver platters and wedding china in cabinets and a cast iron stove with a huge hood; a boys' bedroom with a balcony library; and a small, plain bedroom with uniforms hanging on hooks in the servants' quarters.

When the tour ended back in the gift shop, Marius Barbu said he was impressed with the house, "including the beautiful lady explaining everything."

That brought a smile from Tress, who said such praise more than makes up for the occasional bored teenager she meets when she gives family tours, or the people who are inquisitive to a fault, or those who burn out toward the end of tours. She is pleased "if they shake your hand and tell you it was a great tour," or pose for photos with her, as one group of Goucher College students did.

Plus, she said, "Every time, I'm learning something new."

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