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Historical society welcomes newcomers to annual tour in Catonsville

Catonsville Historical Society will host a home and garden tour May 16

When Jason Russo was asked to participate in the Catonsville Historical Society's house and garden tour back in October, he had just moved into his new home on South Rolling Road less than a month prior and had a baby on the way.

Nevertheless — and without telling his wife, Melissa — he agreed.

"I was sitting here in my pajamas watching football," Russo said of the day the historical society's Maureen O'Donnell came knocking on his door.

Proud of his new home, an aggregate concrete house built more than 75 years ago, and looking for a way to get involved with his new community, he told O'Donnell he would allow his house to be one of the stops on the society's 16th house and garden tour fundraiser.

This year's tour, scheduled for May 16, is the first the organization has hosted in two years, said O'Donnell. In addition to organizing the day's events, the historical society's home and garden tour committee had to find new homes to feature.

After gathering a list of members' friends, family members and acquaintances who would be interested in showing their home as part of the tour, historical society staff took to the streets of Catonsville, knocking on doors and approaching residents in driveways about participating.

When she came across a house that had always interested her or a garden that caught her eye, O'Donnell said she would get in touch with the owner.

"'I was walking by your house and I really liked it,'" she said she would say. "Or, 'you've been doing some fantastic gardening.'"

Bit by bit, the tour came together.

The Catonsville Historical Society's 2015 house and garden tour will feature seven private homes and a peek into the grounds and dwelling of the nuns at the All Saints Priory, a convent located near the end of Hilton Avenue.

In the months since he agreed to have his home featured on the tour, the Russos have been balancing caring for their new baby girl and working to get their home together for the show.

"We've got to clean up," said Russo, looking around his kitchen, where furniture is still being assembled.

But the New Jersey native is excited to show off his first home.

"I wanted this neighborhood," he said, adding that he and his wife, who is from Texas, had placed an offer on the home within just minutes of it being put on the market. "I'm a big fan of old houses."

According to O'Donnell, the Russos home will be one of the highlights of the tour, even if they don't get around to fully unpacking before May 16.

The house, which is built of concrete, has a unique Spanish look to it. Russo even has a framed home and garden magazine advertisement from the 1930s that features the house.

Luckily, he added, they inherited an extensive garden form the home's previous owner.

"They don't make them like this anymore," he said.

Also on the tour will be the home of Bill and Denise Garman, in the 100 block of Oakdale Avenue. Tour participants will be invited to wander throughout the house and check out some of the family's additions to the property.

The four-square colonial home was built just after the turn of the century, but when the Garmans bought the property in 1988, they decided to make the house uniquely theirs.

The most interesting room, Denise Garman said, will probably be large dining room, filled with antiques from Maryland and those collected during the late 1980s when the couple was living in Germany.

One of those antiques is the original fireplace from the Reisterstown home Bill's father grew up in during the Great Depression. Decades ago, when the house was being razed to make way for an auto repair shop, the family salvaged the black tiling and stonework from the structure. Years later, when the couple found out about it, they decided to re-build it in their home. Now it is part of decor that includes items like a hand-painted armoire from Germany.

Years ago, Denise said, she visited homes on the historical society's tour. But this will be her first year showing her own house. Even though she's looking forward to opening her house to neighbors and community members this year, she hopes to steal away for at least a couple of minutes to check out another property on the tour: the convent.

In early February, in keeping with Pope Francis' year of consecrated life initiative, the All Saints Sisters of the Poor hosted an open house for community members to visit the 99-acre property and learn about the experience of the women living there. During the event, Sister Christina Christie said, she was approached by some historical society members asking if the convent might be willing to open its doors again, this time for the society's tour.

"We live here," said Christie. But, she said, "you don't think of it in terms of tours."

The nuns' first open house attracted about 80 visitors. The historical society event is expected to bring in about 300 to 500 people. That's a number Sister Christie admits she can't even imagine filling the halls of the century-old building. "We're kind of new at that kind of thing," she said.

Even though the nuns operate a shop, where they sell homemade cards, rosaries and other religious items, many people may not know that parts of the convent are open to the public, she said.

After the historical society's event next Saturday, during which visitors will be invited to roam the property and tour the first floor of the convent building, the hope among the nuns is that more people in the community will realize that the nuns are there and maybe even visit on their own.

At another house on the tour, Kim Sparklin's Stanley Drive home, the garden will likely be the biggest attention-grabber.

When Sparklin purchased the home in 2010, she inherited an intricate yard area, complete with a large patio space and walkways throughout the property.

"When we bought it, we could see that the structure was there, it was just overgrown," she said.

An avid gardener, it became her mission to fix up the landscaping and capitalize on the house's outdoor potential. Using mostly plants native to central Maryland, she created gardens all over the lot.

Keeping up with the gardens is time-consuming, she said, but she enjoys the flowers and plants so much that the work is worth it.

"Now that my children are grown up, I take care of plants," she said, joking.

The tour will run from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. May 16.

Tickets are $25 for historical society members and $30 for non-members.

Destinations on Beaumont Avenue, Delrey Avenue, Frederick Road, Hilton Avenue, Oakdale Avenue, South Rollling Road and Stanley Drive. Some of the houses are within walking distance to each other, but organizers say most participants will need to drive between stops.

Food and drinks from Atwater's and Scittino's Italian Market will be available for purchase. For information, go to catonsvillehistory.org.

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