Decoration devotees spread holiday cheer in Southland Hills

Fueled by a desire to shine a spotlight on their holiday home decorations, Gregory Rowland and Russ Kuehn began planning for this year’s Christmas showcase on Dec. 26, 2016.

The two Southland Hills neighbors say that part of the fun in planning for their annual illuminating event is finding bargains in post-holiday sales to augment their already voluminous collection of lights and lasers, blow ups, figurines and anything else they can think of to jazz up their properties, which sit on opposite sides of Alabama Road.

That said, Rowland and Kuehn are more than just two guys dabbling in decorations, according to their neighbors and the members of the Southland Hills Improvement Association.

The association has designated the men and their families as “inspirational chairpersons” of the neighborhood’s first annual “Light up the Hills” decorating contest this year, which association officials hope will spur residents to “provide your neighbors with a spectacle of light” during the holidays.

The categories in the contest are numerous, making room for a variety of decorating styles to be honored.

The final award — to honor the legend of Clark Griswold, the fictional character played by Chevy Chase in the 1989 “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” who decorates his house with 25,000 lights — was first bestowed, albeit unofficially, on Kuehn last year, thanks to Rowland’s wife, Michele, who gave Kuehn a cup featuring Chase’s photo and “The Spirit of Southland Hills” inscribed on it with a Sharpie.

Michele Rowland, an assistant principal at Rodgers Forge Elementary School, found the ceramic cup at Kohl’s and thought it make a perfect fit.

“I had it in my head that I wanted to acknowledge Russ for the what he does to show the spirit of Christmas,” she said. “And I wanted something you could pass on to the next winner. Kudos to Russ and my husband for spreading the joy of Christmas the way they do.”

More and more

Kuehn said that he and Rowland enjoy sharing their Christmas joy through the light displays.

“The fact that we are on the same street a few houses apart is just luck,” said Kuehn, a 46-year-old program manager for the Social Security Administration who has lived in Southland Hills for nearly 18 years.

The second-oldest of his five children, Madeline, 15, echoes her dad’s inclination to ramp up the illumination at this time of year. The Towson High School freshman even climbed the trunk of a tree in the front yard this year to make sure strings of bright white lights reached as high as 30 feet.

“I’ve been climbing that tree for a long time; the height doesn't bother me,” she said.

Rowland, 45, is also a climber of sorts, venturing onto the roof of his home to try — unsuccessfully — to spell “Xmas” with strings of lights for passersby to read — as if they didn’t already have enough to see in Rowland’s lineup of a plastic inflatable characters, including those from Star Wars and Peanuts, which overlook a Nativity scene on his front lawn.

“The wires weren’t stiff enough, so I really couldn’t spell anything,” said the Dumbarton Middle School science teacher. “But I told my son, Luke, it sort of looks like an abstract version of the Three Wise Men.”

Both have decorated their houses for years, although the depths and breadth of their hobby has taken off in recent seasons, they said.

“We noticed what each other was doing, as we added more and more,” Kuehn said.

Kuehn said that he likes to share his love of illumination with neighbors who might not be inclined to brighten up for the holiday season or might just need help adding to what they already do.

He has helped several of his neighbors spruce up their decorations. “We’re encouraging the whole neighborhood to add more lights,” he said.

‘A celebration, not a contest’

Jennifer Bolster, the Southland Hills Improvement Association president, said that she appreciates the effort made by the Alabama Road crew.

"Russ and his daughter, Madeleine, are the decorating inspirations for the Southland Hills neighborhood," Bolster said. "Russ and his kids decorates their home, and those of other neighbors also. Last year he was presented with the inaugural 'Clark Griswold Award' for his work to bring the 400 block of Alabama alive.

Bolster added that Rowland’s decorations "never cease to amaze, entertain, and inspire. Falling in line behind Russ and Gregory's leadership, almost the whole block is getting into the spirit and lighting up their yards. It keeps building every year, which is why we decided to throw out a challenge for the whole neighborhood this season."

Both men said they began adorning their houses after Thanksgiving, adding decorations incrementally rather than in one fell swoop.

“I do mine in eight parts,” Rowland said. “It gives people a chance to see what’s new. We don’t really compete against each other. Like we always say, ‘It’s a celebration, not a contest.’”

The two don’t necessarily limit their decorating efforts to the holiday season.

If the Baltimore Ravens qualify for the playoffs, Kuehn and Rowland will bathe their houses in purple lights, they said.

Moreover, Rowland said that his family is hoping he will be able to find blow ups that will celebrate Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day and Easter.

Kuehn’s next-door neighbor, Mary Fondersmith, said that she’s used to people driving slowly down Alabama Road while taking in the scene.

“And that’s kind of nice,” the 30-year Southland Hills resident added. “It makes me happy. It’s very much a family effort for them. They’re making good memories.”

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