Ellicott City's Avoca open for interpretation, dreams

If only its walls could talk.

On a hot humid afternoon, stories swirled around the empty rooms of the old house on Montgomery Road known as Avoca. Talks of a ghost named Emily, debates on the age of the house and stories of slaves, the Underground Railroad and German prisoners of war were shared as guests climbed stairs and gathered in rooms during what organizers called a Dirty Work Party.

The July 16 event marked the first time Historic Ellicott City Inc. opened its annual decorator show house to the public before the decorators arrived. Instead of furnished rooms in all styles, guests saw peeling paint, dusty floors and the dreams of the designers.

"With all the home improvement shows showing before and after I thought 'let's do this,'" said Shelley Wygant, a member of the HEC board and co-designer chair. "People can come here and see what it looks like. People don't really know how bad these houses can be."

Not that Avoca is in bad shape. Dating to the 1800s, the manor house has weathered many storms, including one that felled a large poplar tree that landed on the stone house and did little damage, many recalled. All of the 19 spaces where the designers are working offer rooms with high ceilings, solid floors and no major repairs, outside of one designer who may completely renovate and gut a bathroom, organizers said.

"This is the room that resonated with me," said Rhonald Angelo, a designer from Kensington who will be redoing the library on the first floor. He is happy with the room's built-in bookcases, fireplace and even its radiator.

"The radiator pipe makes its presence very well known," Angelo said, nodding to the pipe that snaked up the wall. "It is not a flaw. It's an opportunity to work around. It is obviously a necessity. I have to work around it and I will."

He admits his plans are not quite complete for the room, but that he does plan on using light colors and few window treatments.

"This room gets a lot of light when it is sunny out," Angelo said. "The window treatments should frame the view rather than cover it up."

Ashleigh Haker, of a.s.h. designs, was also happy with her room. The nanny's bedroom, which she plans to convert into a lounge, is small and, on the day of the house tour, hot and stuffy, but she only sees possibilities.

"I really enjoy coming into a blank slate and putting my vision in a room. My creative ideas," Haker said. "This is a more intimate room. It was my first choice. I'm glad I got it."

One thing that attracted her to the room was the black-painted hardwood floors.

"I'm planning to do modern mid-century. It is very on trend right now," Hacker said, adding the floor's color works, though it needs attention.

"My first step is cleaning, sanding and painting," Hacker laughed, as she glanced at the spider webs adorning the light fixture.

Decorators are allowed to start work on their rooms on July 23. They have the whole month of August to prepare their rooms and some of September, as the show house is slated to open on Sept. 22 for a preview party hosted by Historic Ellicott City. The home will then be open to the public for viewings through Oct. 23.

"It's a fundraiser," Judy Draper-Perrine,a Historic Ellicott City director, said of the show house. "Sometimes we make a lot, sometimes a little."

Avoca is the 30th decorator show house the group has hosted. Last year, a home could not be found in time and the fundraiser was canceled.

"It's hard," Peggy Fisher, a Historic Ellicott City director, said of finding a show house. "We try to get an old house rather than a new home as we are a Historic Society."

Typically, the show houses have either been just placed on the market or just purchased. Avoca is for sale.

"What better way to market your home?" said Joan Becker, president of Historic Ellicott City Inc. "We get 4,000 people going through and you get it all fixed up."

Nina Buffington purchased Holly Manor and then decided, along with her husband, Ed, to allow their home to be a show house in 2011.

"The stars all aligned," Buffington recalled. "We bought the property and were in the midst of remodeling and ... they were able to come in and do the show."

It was an "adventure," Buffington said. "The decorators did their magic in each room. They take a neutral space and change it. It was an amazing transformation."

With its central location in the county and easy access to Montgomery Road, hopes are high that Avoca will be successful.

"This year will probably be good. Everyone is anxious to get started," Becker said.

Although not a professional decorate, Becker and her friend Mary Bradford is she a professional? are decorating the children's bedroom with a nautical theme.

"I love to do it," Becker said, as she displayed the fabrics and ideas she and Bradford are planning to use in the room. "I sew a lot. I started sewing for my sorority house at James Madison University and that was a long time ago."

As the owner of Avoca, Thomas Breen knows its many stories and quirks. His deceased wife's family home, Breen remembers the horses she kept on the property and the fruit orchards.

"It's seen a lot of changes in the county. A lot of stuff has come and gone," Breen said. "It is still standing. It is a great house."

If you go

Historic Ellicott City's Decorator Show House Avoca will open its doors on Sept. 24 and run through Oct. 23 at 4824 Montgomery Road, Ellicott City. Hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. Closed Mondays. General admission is $20 for tickets purchased in advance; $25 for tickets purchased at the door. A preview party will be held on Sept. 22, from 6:30 to 10 p.m. Tickets are $85. For more information, call 410-461-6908.

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