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No decorator show house this year, but Historic Ellicott City opens doors to new ideas

When Peggy Maxson first became involved with Historic Ellicott City Inc., she joked the organization’s popular fundraiser, the decorator show house, would be losing a big customer.

“I absolutely adored the show house. I always brought groups,” Maxson said. “I would go through it two or three times.”

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For 33 years, the nonprofit has showcased a historic house, completely renovated and decorated, as a way to raise funds for its various preservation efforts — including work done on the B&O Railroad Station Museum, the Thomas Isaac Log Cabin and the Heritage Orientation Center.

Typically raising around $40,000, the fundraiser has started to see a slight decline in attendance and funds over the past few years, said Maxson, now president of Historic Ellicott City Inc. Last year’s show house raised $33,000.

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“That is still really good, but is it worth doing a show house?” Maxson said. “Our population of volunteers is aging. Doing a show house is really hard work over nine months time. Sustaining that is difficult.”

At the group’s first meeting of the year, the decision was made to not host a show house in 2020 with the promise to bring it back the following year. The group said it would focus, instead, on creating new fundraisers for revenue.

“It is still something the community loves and something we are really determined to continue,” Maxson said. “Perhaps it was fortuitous.”

Many fundraising ideas were shared at the meeting, according to member Connie Siegel and many are on hold now due to the coronavirus.

“We had plans to be at Ellicott City’s Spring Fest [on April 18] this year, an event that brings 8,000 people to town, but that was canceled,” Siegel said. Members discussed hosting various dinners, an auction and attending other Ellicott City festivals like Fall Fest and the Harry Potter Festival.

“All these different opportunities,” Maxson said. “We just don’t know when it will be all clear again.”

Members approved putting Historic Ellicott City’s logo on various merchandise, including doormats, with items sold on its website and various locations around Ellicott City. Wiley Purkey, a Historic Ellicott City board adviser and local artist, created a design for a mug given to new members when they register.

“There is a picture of the train station,” Purkey said. “We did a lot of funding for its restoration. It’s a nice giveaway for new members.”

For the past three years, Purkey was given studio space in the show houses, allowing him to work and sell his paintings during the event. He has seen firsthand the clientele the show houses attract and the work needed to keep it going.

“I am a fanatic when it comes to historic preservation, but being an artist ... we really do need to allow things that challenge people’s perceptions,” Purkey said. “We need to mix up contemporary styles, mid-century modern, art deco and hippie décor. Make it interesting. Something younger members, younger visitors can relate to.”

Historic Ellicott City has done exceptional work in the town, he added, and yet many people do not know about it.

“The show houses are extremely important and what Historic Ellicott City is known for,” Purkey said. “They’re coming up on 50 years. They’ve done so many good things the public does not know about.”

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Many people mistake Historic Ellicott City for the Howard County Historical Society, Maxson said, including herself.

“I had no idea. I thought they were the Historical Society,” Maxson said. “We get questions like, 'Where can I find a will?’ It’s interesting.”

Historic Ellicott City’s mission is to help with the restoration and preservation of buildings throughout the Historic District and throughout Howard County. The Howard County Historical Society’s main focus, Siegel said, is to document history and preserve artifacts in a museum.

“We need to get our name out there and let people know who we are here,” Siegel said. “We need new people to join us. We are determined to get membership up. We would love to hear from people with fundraising ideas or new creative ways to interact.”

The group is planning to host its Design at Dusk program this year at the B&O Railroad Station Museum. First offered during last year’s show house, the Design at Dusk event featured a show house designer discussing elements of design with a group of about 20 people.

“It was very well received,” Siegel said. “It was like talking with a designer one-on-one. The designers did a wonderful job with their presentations.”

Maxson also believes the Design at Dusk events will help keep the show house fundraiser on people’s minds.

While taking a year off from having a show house is not unprecedented — there was none in 2015 — it is important to not skip too many years if it is to continue, Maxson said.

“If you miss a year, you still have loyal followers,” Maxson said. “If you miss more years, you have to rebuild that community.”

Historic Ellicott City’s mission is even more important today, Siegel said, as historic Ellicott City’s Main Street has suffered through two floods and now the coronavirus pandemic.

“We have a water problem and it is not over; people live in extreme anxiety over that,” Siegel said. “Yes, people are extremely hopeful and resilient and rebuild, but they can never forget what they went through. It is in their minds every day.”

Flood-proof windows and doors are one way to help ease business owners’ fears, and Historic Ellicott City is hoping to help support projects like that through grants and funds raised.

“We are working closely with businesses,” Maxson said of the restoration projects. “I’m excited for what our future can be.”

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