Stemmer House in Green Spring Valley up for auction

A knock rarely brings the owner to the front door of Stemmer House. It is more likely that she will emerge to greet you from her gardens, wearing her trademark galoshes, tool belt, work gloves and sun hat.

Though Barbara Holdridge has lived in this historic Baltimore County home for nearly 40 years, it is her gardens that demand her time and attention. More than six of the 27 acres that surround the home are formally landscaped, and if they don't need to be weeded, they need to be watered.

"Weeds are always with us," she says.

Holdridge moves slowly across her gardens these days. The dual hip replacement that she underwent in December was successful, and the octogenarian is grateful that she was able to get back to the garden in the spring. But she soon realized there was too much to do.

Stemmer House, built in 1751, will be auctioned Wednesday, and Holdridge will leave it and her gardens.

"I have a sense of obligation to this estate," she says while resting on the patio that overlooks an oval lawn surrounded by a thigh-high brick wall — a classic English garden look.

"I felt it was time to turn it over to people who can do what I cannot. People who have children who can grow up the way my daughters did, learning about nature from this place."

The Stemmer House is rich in history, and Holdridge has meticulously researched it, collecting photos and letters.

Built by a sea captain named Ulrich Stemmer who was engaged in West Indies trade, it was about to be torn down in 1930 when the wife of Baltimore banker Austin McLanahan bought it and had it moved, brick by carefully numbered brick, from Philadelphia Road to its current location atop a hill in Green Spring Valley.

"And she never got to live in the house," said Holdridge. "When it was done, her husband said, 'Not on your life.' He was a banker in the city and there was no Jones Falls Expressway, and he wasn't about to make that long trip."

Instead, it was Romaine McLanahan's daughter, Jean Taliaferro, and her husband, Francis, who moved into the meticulously reconstructed house, and they lived there for 40 years before selling it to Holdridge and her husband, Lawrence, in 1973.

"We'd just moved into a house on Old Court Road when the real estate agent said he had a house we had to see," Holdridge recalled. "I remember that we stood on the front steps and said, 'We'll take it.'"

They paid $295,000 for the house and grounds, which Holdridge considered a blank canvas for her passion for gardening. "There was nothing here," said Holdridge, who planted nearly 100 trees — including a rare Japanese maple just this spring.

"I wanted to make 40 years here, too," said Holdridge, "but I only made it to 39."

Daughters Eleanor and Diana have their own lives — in Hagerstown and in the Midwest — and cannot take over the house. And Holdridge's efforts to sell it on the real estate market failed. Wednesday's auction begins at $1.4 million, far below her original asking price.

"I assume it is because of the economy," she said. "You know, I have had generous offers over the years, and I just scoffed at them. I always thought I would die here."

The main house and the carriage house are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and cannot be torn down. Baltimore County zoning would limit development of the land to 10 or 12 houses, and only if any development plans passed muster with county agencies. There also has been some talk of protecting it as a conservation easement under the Maryland Environmental Trust.

Development is an intolerable idea to Holdridge. What would become of her gardens, and of Caesar and Cleo, the latest generation of swans who glide over the property's lake and who wait each day for Holdridge to feed them?

What of her husband's ashes, which are buried here, as are the remains of her beloved dogs in a tiny pet cemetery. "And I am hoping for the same for me," she said.

"I would hope the new owners would allow me to come and visit my gardens and the swans," she said.

The idea of downsizing from this majestic seven-bedroom house is daunting. Holdridge said she has just begun to consider what she might take with her to smaller lodgings.

"Certainly the things from my parents," she said. "And the things I purchased myself when I was a young woman. And other things. I want to have a running feeling of my life around me."

Holdridge says she is not a sentimental woman, and she is taking her cue from Jean Taliaferro, who remained a friend after she turned over the keys to Stemmer House.

"I know it hit her hard, but she was able to do it. And I feel like I owe it to the house to go."


About the auction

The auction is 11 a.m. Wednesday. An open house is being held from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. today. The minimum bid is $1.4 million and a $50,000 deposit is required. For more information, go to realestate.alexcooper.com and click on upcoming auctions.