Lugging trash bags full of plants and flowers, women in their 50s and 60s began arriving at Johns Hopkins University's Homewood Museum at 9 a.m. Thursday, Dec. 5.
Using the old wine cellar of the historic, 1801 house as a staging area, they began prepping the greens as decorations.
"That is gorgeous holly," Carol Morris, of Homeland, told Brucie Wright, of Kernewood.
The women were members of the Homeland Garden Club, there to decorate Homewood Museum, 3400 N. Charles St., for the holidays.
"Well, I'm ready to rock 'n' roll," said Morris, a grandmother and former teacher in Baltimore County, wearing an apron and white gloves. The women migrated upstairs, huddled briefly in the drawing room to decide who would decorate what, then fanned out around the house with floral arrangements and greens for the mantles of 14 fireplaces, as well as for pianos and tables in rooms ranging from the master bedroom chamber to the music room.
Following them around to water the plants and lay sheets of protective material on the surfaces was Judith Proffitt, program and membership coordinator for University Museums, which also owns the Evergreen Museum and Library, 4545 N. Charles St.
"These people are extremely creative," Proffitt marveled.
Decking Homewood's halls with boughs of holly is an annual tradition for the 32-member Homeland Garden Club, which dates to 1926 and is part of the Federated Garden Clubs of Maryland. Club members from as far away as Lutherville traditionally arrive at this time of year to work their magic in time for the annual Homewood by Candlelight tour. This year's tour was Monday. The greens and floral arrangements will remain through New Year's Day, imbuing the already stately house with holiday spirit to entice museum visitors.
"My gosh, people love to see the houses decorated," Proffitt said. "It's like a decorator show house, in the sense that you get ideas — 'Oh, I could do that in my house.' "
The club does community projects throughout the year — "This is just one of them," Wright said.
Members also help out at the William S. Baer School in Baltimore and at the Howard Peters Rawlings Conservatory and Botanic Gardens in Druid Hill Park. This year, the club donated $1,250 to the conservatory in conjunction with the conservatory's 125th anniversary.
Wright said museum officials have come to depend on the garden club members — and Catherine Arthur doesn't disagree.
"We're really lucky that we have them," said Arthur, director and curator of Homewood Museum. "They're way better at this than we are."
Moreover, club member start with a historical handicap. For authenticity, museum officials allow them to use only natural plant materials that would have been available when the house, now a national historical landmark, was built by Charles Carroll of Carrollton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, as a wedding gift for his son, Charles Carroll Jr. and daughter-in-law, Harriet Chew Carroll.
Club members can't use any modern holiday decorations, either.
"There isn't any glitz, because there would not have been any glitz. It's mostly just the greens," said Morris, the club president and one of the few group member who actually lives in Homeland.
But the elegant greenery is in keeping with the spirit of the residence as a symbol of wealth for the Carroll family, "which is what this house was all about," Proffitt said. "They thought of it as a duty to show good style and the highest in aesthetics," Proffitt said. "It was a noblesse oblige kind of thing."
Eight members came to Homewood to decorate and were joined not only by Proffitt but by Deb Fitzell, of Catonsville, a second-generation volunteer docent at Homewood.
Many in the garden club have been members for 20 years or more. They are passionate and perfectionists.
"I do this long before I do my own house," said Katherine Murphy, of Guilford.
In the music room, Murphy placed an urn with carnations, holly and boxwood next to a candle on a piano, but agonized over it.
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"It's driving me crazy, because the candle is (leaning) one way and (the plant) is going the other way," Murphy said.
She gingerly moved the candle.
"I probably shouldn't even be touching it," she said.
As the morning wore on, members admired their handiwork.
"It's starting to look a little more finished," said Laurie Long, of Lutherville, a consultant who helps people downsize their homes.
Katie Stevens, of Guilford, climbed up on a step ladder to decorate the mantle in the master bedroom chamber with its commode and 15-foot ceiling..
"I like being here with the other club ladies and helping out," Stevens said. And she said she takes satisfaction in knowing that "it makes it look festive and in keeping with the period."