Liriodendron is a Harford County treasure

When the street sign said Boulton, I knew I was near the right address. Soon another familiar street name popped up — Atwood — and I was squarely in Bel Air's Howard Park, a subdivision created out of the orchards surrounding a noteworthy Baltimorean's summer home.

Its formal name is Liriodendron, and it is a Harford County treasure. It was built by one of the Johns Hopkins Hospital's fabled "Big Four," Dr. Howard Atwood Kelly. Kelly spent most of the year at 1406 Eutaw Place in Baltimore, where he also had a private clinic in an adjoining building. But in the summer, he, his Danzig-born wife, Olga Elizabeth Laetitia Bredow, and nine children made off for cooler Bel Air.

For years I had meant to call at his summer residence but never quite found my way off U.S. 1. Once I arrived, there was no disappointment. Liriodendron, built in 1898, has a power without being pompous. Though quite a mansion, it somehow avoids ostentation. And it is also familiar, so like the other large houses designed by architects Wyatt and Nolting in Roland Park. Kelly hired those designers, who filled the curving hillside roads of the Jones Falls Valley near Falls Road with similar, if slightly smaller, residences.

The arrival of an early spring had coaxed a canopy of ancient wisteria into bloom. This twisty vine spans a south-facing garden terrace, where I am told generations of young Kellys and their friends roller-skated. I observed a formal pool and fountain. One of the Kellys' great-grandsons, Dave Davis, who joined me there, told me that when they were children, it was used more for wading than as a garden ornament.

I soon got the idea that as grand as it is, this is a house that is more about family, relationships and happy living than social pedigree or cotillions.

Several rooms are devoted to a public art gallery, open Sundays from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m, where there is an exhibition of photos of the extended Kelly family, as well as photos of neighborhood children who were apparently welcome at this big house. I looked at the 1940s and 1950s photos and thought they could have been my own family's, taken just down the Maryland & Pennsylvania Railroad line at Fallston, where my grandparents had a summer home — if on less grand proportions.

Now for "Liriodendron." It's the botanical name of the tulip poplar tree, one of my favorite Maryland hearty growers and abundant in these parts. Interestingly, an early watercolor garden design for the property, displayed in a hallway, has the Kelly residence named, more simply, The Poplars.

"I wish we still were," said Maryanna Skowronski, Harford County Historical Society's director and Liriodendron gallery head. "We are always getting confused with the Ladew topiary garden and the L'Hirondelle Club. Whenever I give a tour, I ask, 'What does "Liriodendron" mean?' Nobody knows."

Kelly and his wife died on the same day in 1943. Their son, Fritz, had earlier purchased the property and sold some of it for a Bel Air housing subdivision. Another contiguous landmark, the old Bel Air thoroughbred racetrack, became the Harford Mall.

But the heart of the summer residence and its grounds remained intact. Fritz Kelly sold the property to Harford County. The estate, at 99 acres, is now part of Heavenly Waters Park. There is also an adjacent Ma & Pa Railroad walking trail. Harford government agencies often use the house for meetings and training sessions.

Dorothy Francis, who administers the house for Harford County, has created a weekday "petit" bridal package, perhaps to accompany a civil ceremony. The sip of champagne and nibble of wedding cake is not included, but for $350, Liriodendron can be yours for three hours, Monday through Thursday. A full weekend wedding or corporate event will cost you more.