It can't be.
That's how it felt to learn in November that the house at Pomona, former home of Albert D. and Gretchen Hochschild Hutzler, my grandparents, was gone. I keep visiting the site to let my senses confirm the news, which came first from a cousin who had rescued the door knocker. The estate in Pikesville passed from our family's hands in 1977, the year my grandmother died, into those of the developer Gordon Sugar. He erected brick apartments and a shopping center but spared the house, renting it out as two apartments. On Nov. 12, its current owners, the Virginia-based Southern Management Co., commenced demolition.
Long after the property was sold, after the family business' 13-decade run ended in 1990, and even as suburban sprawl swallowed up its surroundings, the mansion's graceful, solid presence continued to exert a gravitational pull on those of us who had once belonged there. It embodied other, very different times.
Both born in 1888, Albert and Gretchen were scions, collectively, of four German-Jewish families whose names were synonymous with retail in Baltimore — Hutzler, Gutman, Hochschild and Hamburger. Pomona was the flower of their good fortune, a pastoral idyll convenient to the city where that fortune was made, and in whose affairs they participated actively. They established a way of life at Pomona — and a gathering place for family, friends and "store family" — that bore the genteel flavors of 19th-century Europe and Maryland deep into the 20th.
Albert's uncle, Abram G. Hutzler, the founder of Hutzler Brothers department store, bought Pomona in 1915. Albert and Gretchen purchased the 90-acre property in 1927, after Abram's death at 92*. With their three children, the youngest of whom, my father, was 9*, they departed the Windsor Hills neighborhood for country living in high style. While Albert ran Hutzler Brothers department store with his brother, Joel, and their cousin Louis*, Gretchen managed the household, which included a domestic staff of no fewer than four (cook, upstairs maid, butler-chauffeur and laundress), a gardener and a farmer who lived on the premises with his family. The estate encompassed a farm that supplied all the produce, dairy and meat for the family, with vegetable, flower, and formal gardens, fields of corn and hay for feed, cattle, mules, chickens and pigs.
In their Judaism, the family was not even mildly religious, but on Friday night, my cousin Ann (Bernstein) Guralnick said, "you were expected to be there, unless you had a really good excuse." Those family dinners figure large in the recollections of all my first cousins, who grew up on properties adjacent to Pomona.
"It started with hors d'oeuvres and cocktails," Ann recalled. "There was raw beef with all the trimmings, tangy cheese crackers, Green Goddess dip, and peanut butter and bacon on toast squares, served warm." Sauteed "rock livers" (from rockfish), fried green tomatoes, and roast turkeys and hams fully carved and perfectly reassembled are menu items my cousin Amy Bernstein remembers. In season, Amy said, each family was sent home Friday night with a basket of produce for the week, prepared by Joe Daley, the farmer.
"I would always wear a jacket and tie," said Jim Hutzler, another cousin. "Grandma would always sit in the same chair in the library, and Auntie Floss would sit in the same chair next to it."
Florence Hochschild Austrian, Gretchen's sister, was a painter of regional renown and an activist on behalf of city life. Her paintings of Pomona capture its atmosphere as no photograph could.
Shortly after buying the estate, Albert and Gretchen undertook major renovations to the house, the oldest part of which was built in 1786. They updated the kitchen and added a wood-paneled library, a garage, a large master bath, and a dining room modeled on the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Baltimore Room. Eight years later, just in time for their daughter Caroline's 1936 wedding, they completed installation of an oval pool with changing rooms and a polygonal formal living room they called the "gazebo," with a balcony overlooking the pool.
Their flourishes followed Uncle Abe's precedent. Upon acquiring Pomona as a summer home, Abram G. Hutzler, 79 and never married, made significant improvements, including the addition of the front porch with two-story columns and redrawing the driveway into a lyrical swoop up the hill to the side of the house, designed by vanguard landscape architect Thomas Warren Sears.
Pomona, the Roman numina, or guardian spirit, of fruiting trees and orchards, once graced the knocker on the front door, according to two separate accounts. If any such knocker survived in 1915, it was replaced by my great-great-uncle Abram with his own eponymous one, which remained on the door until it was salvaged in November at the request of David Hutzler, another of my cousins.
My father, Richard Hochschild Hutzler, went west as a young man and waited until his siblings were grandparents before embarking on parenthood himself. Thus, I did not share my cousins' experiences of going over a stile and across a field to Pomona, as Jim did; of walking up the driveway for tea with Grandma, as Ann did; of milking cows or baling hay, as George Bernstein did; of coming out as whatever the Jewish version of a debutante is, as my cousin Betty Friedman did; or even of swimming in the oval pool, as they all did. (Betty said there were always frogs in it.)
Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, I had stayed at Pomona just a few times before my grandmother died when I was 41/2. I recall that it was like traveling into the past, with fingerbowls at every meal; a juice glass on a plate that must be cleared by the butler — the celebrated Emmanuel Moaney — before the rest of breakfast could be served; a matching silver brush and hand mirror on a skirted vanity; a grandfather clock on the landing; a springhouse, where milk was once chilled. A beloved grandmother. A brief glimpse to hold for a lifetime.
After staying away for most of his adult life, my father turned out to be the last of the Hutzlers to leave. He reserved one of Gordon Sugar's apartments when they were under construction, for use initially as a pied-a-terre, and later as a full-time residence, when we moved to Baltimore in 1989. From our concrete patio, we could see the house. It was a little strange, almost farcical, undeniably sad. In the wake of the house's disappearance, though, my father's choice to stay in spite of diminished circumstances makes sense to me. How could he live in Pikesville and not be at Pomona?
Ron Frank is the president of Southern Management Co., which oversees 76 apartment communities and bought Pomona in 2013. He explained that SMC gave notice to the house's longtime renters because it contained liabilities such as lead paint, asbestos and fire code violations. The possibility of converting it into a community and fitness center was explored, but deemed too costly.
Demolition was a painful decision to make, Frank said, because the house was beautiful on the outside, like something out of "Gone with the Wind." The tentative plan is to add a midrise or high-rise with studio and one-bedroom apartments, while housing the fitness center in the barn. The farmhouse came down right away when SMC bought the property, but the barn, stone carriage house and springhouse are aesthetic amenities, he said, and will stay.
Frank also explained SMC's decision to change the community's name from Pomona to the Residences at Pomona Park.
"It sounded more residential than just Pomona," he said. "What does 'Pomona' mean?"
That's a question only memory can answer.