A glimpse of history and holiday cheer in Howard County house tour

The Baltimore Sun

Of the 500 or so Howard County homes on a statewide list of historic properties, five are open to the public for a fundraiser one day each year.

Local residents jump at the chance each December to step inside places they previously could only glimpse from afar – and get a history lesson at the same time.

“These are beautiful, grand homes that people can’t get into otherwise, but they’re curious about,” said Shawn Gladden, executive director of the Howard County Historical Society, which is holding its 41st annual Holiday House Tour on Sunday, Dec. 10.

“That’s one reason this tour is so popular,” he said.

Another reason the 250 available tickets always sell out quickly is because each historical home in the county is only considered for inclusion once every 10 years and people don’t want to miss out, he said.

“People begin calling about this event in June, and have learned to buy their tickets early,” Gladden said.

Four of the five houses on this year’s tour are private residences.

They include Burleigh Manor and Porter’s Tavern in Ellicott City, and Oakland Barn and Ralston Cottage in Columbia. The latter two are part of one original 1,700-acre tract along with Oakland Manor, which is currently being leased as Historic Oakland for private events and office space.

About half of the 1,159 county listings on the Maryland Inventory of Historic Properties are homes, Gladden estimated. Also included in the state inventory — which is a research database managed by the Maryland Historical Trust — are churches, farms, general stores and land tracts.

“We didn’t have organized preservation efforts in the county until the 1990s, and some historical properties were lost as Columbia was being developed,” he said.

Gladden said Preservation Howard County, a nonprofit, “has gone to great lengths to preserve historic buildings.”

Tour bus captains will talk about the history of each home and also point out any historical properties the bus may pass along the way, said Paulette Lutz, the society’s first vice president.

Homeowners will act as docents inside their houses, sharing historical information with guests that they have researched on their own.

“These homeowners open up their homes and let people traipse through out of the generosity of their hearts,” Lutz said. “People love it.”

As usual, each location on the tour will be decorated for the holidays.

“Some people go above and beyond [with their decorations], which is phenomenal,” Gladden said.

Lisa Davis, co-owner of Burleigh Manor, a 10-acre property that has been transformed into an animal sanctuary and eco-retreat, said she is using the tour as an excuse to purchase new holiday decorations this year.

She also plans to use clippings from a large magnolia tree in her backyard and to feature Christmas trees in her home’s foyer and living room.

“Garlands and candles in the windows are always part of the decorations,” said Davis, who along with her husband, Dr. Larry Cheskin, has owned the home for five years.

Burleigh Manor was built in the Federal style between 1745 and 1809 by Col. Rezin Hammond and his family. The colonel was active in Revolutionary War politics and later became a member of the state legislature, the society’s website states.

Lutz noted that the home has a wine cellar and a detached kitchen, which was common when foods were prepared in a fireplace and grease fires were a real concern.

“Food was cooked in another building and brought into the home” as a precaution, she said.

Gladden has again set a tour fundraising goal of $10,000 to be put back into programming at the historical society, which has 500 members.

Ticketholders are allowed about 45 minutes in each home and get 15 minutes to board the coach buses and reach the next location on the tour. When the event was started in 1977, school buses were the only affordable mode of transportation.

The historical society has been able to make upgrades to the tour since deciding in 2013 to take on a sponsor, which, for the fourth consecutive year, will be the Bob Lucido Team real estate firm. Lunch, wine, snacks and bottled water are also included in the ticket price.

“It’s always a fun time,” said Gladden, recalling how the bus on which he was serving as captain got stuck in the mud three years ago after heavy rains.

Even that inconvenience didn’t spoil the day, he recalled.

“We all sang Christmas carols and sipped wine” while waiting for a new bus to arrive, he said with a laugh.

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If you go

The Howard County Historical Society’s 41st annual Holiday House tour will take place from 1:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 10, starting in the parking lot of Centennial High School, 4300 Centennial Lane, Ellicott City. Tickets, which must be purchased in advance, are: $60 for members; $70 for members’ guests; $80 general admission. Participants should wear flat-heeled shoes to protect floors and bring a flashlight. To purchase tickets or learn more about the homes’ histories, go to hchsmd.org or call 410-480-3250.

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