The annual Holiday House Tour organized by the Howard County Historical Society offers a peek inside some of the county's most magnificent and historic homes. The buildings are lavishly decorated for the holidays, and the owners are usually delighted to share a bit of the home's history and point out its most interesting features.
It's a learning experience for the participants, but the owners often get an education as well.
That's what happened with David Balderson, who with his wife, Susan, has owned the Wayside Inn in Ellicott City since 1998. The inn was part of the Holiday House Tour 10 years ago and is included again this year.
"One of the coolest things was that we learned a lot," he said. He explained that one woman on the tour, who was about 80, said she and her friends used to roller skate on the top floor of the inn, which was a big open space at the time. Now, roller-skating would be considerably more difficult because two two-room suites, built by the previous owner, occupy the space.
This year's Holiday House Tour, the 36th, will feature four homes and the Bethany Chapel, said Shelley Wygant, immediate past president and current first vice president of the Historical Society. The Wayside Inn, built in 1780, is the oldest and the Waldner-Heinemann House, built in 1920, is the newest . By coincidence, all five are in Ellicott City Wygant said..
"The point of this tour is to show people how people actually live in historic homes," Wygant said. "How they've made it their own, how they've worked around some anachronistic features."
Between four and six Eyre buses will meet participants at the Miller Branch of the Howard County Library at 1 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 9, for a tour that lasts from five to six hours. "It's a good amount of properties for an afternoon," Wygant said.
Homes are chosen for their historic and architectural value, with the goal of letting at least 10 years pass before a home is returned to the tour, Wygant said. Each bus will visit the sites in a different order, so the houses don't get too crowded, stopping at each location for about 30 minutes. "A lot of times you'll get people who have wonderful stories of artifacts they've found in their house," Wygant said. "They typically have researched the history of their house."
Michael and Laura Sullivan are opening their home, MacAlpine, to the tour for the first time this year. "We love the history of our house and feel that we should share the home with the public," Laura Sullivan said. "At the end of the day it's important that the home and the history of the home be shared."
The house's fascinating history begins with its construction around 1860 by James MacKubin, whose first wife, Comfort Augusta Dorsey, died four years into their marriage. His second wife, Gabriella, for whom MacAlpine was built, was related to both Robert E. Lee and Martha Custis Washington.
The Sullivans worked with Ken Short , an architectural historian in Howard County, to win listing in 2004 on the National Register of Historic Places. Because of that designation, any work they do to the rambling home must meet historic specifications. For example, when they replaced rotting columns on the portico, said Laura Sullivan, they hired a carpenter to hand-mill the replacements using the original wood type. "So the columns that were new were actually made just like the old ones."
The Sullivans plan to station friends and family in different rooms of the house to point out architectural features and share some details of the home's history, Laura Sullivan said.
Geoffrey Chambers moved to Search Enclosed in 1955, when he was just 1 year old and the house was 161. His mother, Bette Chambers, was a prominent local interior decorator who transformed the house and opened it to the Historic House Tour several times, Geoffrey recalled.
When his parents Bette and Melvin purchased the house, "it was trashed," he said. "There were vines growing in the second-story windows of the house."
Search Enclosed is now owned by his son, Brandon Joseph Chambers, who is working with his father on a complete update, with changes that include a new roof, granite countertops in the kitchen and vaulted ceilings.
During the tour, "People are going to see construction stuff but they're also going to see a lot of finished stuff," he said.
The Waldner-Heinemann House also is on the tour. The original home was built around 1899, but it burned down in the 1920s and was rebuilt. The house is notable for its Dutch-Colonial Revival style.
The history of the Bethany Chapel, which dates to 1883, will be explained by members Joyce Knell and Mark and Shirley Shull. "We put together a timeline before, which we're going to use," said Mark Shull. "We have some histories on the church and so we're using those as references."
Balderson said he's looking forward to the tour, which will include "a little chat about the house" and the opportunity for visitors to wander through the upstairs rooms. The inn will be decorated for the holidays with a Christmas tree, poinsettias and wreathes. Before a sound wall on Route 29 blocked the view a few years ago, people could easily see the Wayside Inn when they were driving by. The stately gray structure was known for the candles that lit its windows.
"It's just fun," Balderson said. "The house has been here for so long, and so many people say they've been dying to come in."