Perched on a hill overlooking Old Ellicott City sits Mt. Ida, a historic home built in the late 1820s for the grandson of one of the city’s founders.
During its nearly 200-year history, the property has served a variety of purposes — private residence, dairy farm and even courthouse. In January, Mt. Ida kicked off its latest chapter as an inn operated by Ellicott City couple Kimberly Kepnes and Nathan Sowers.
“I just love it,” said Kepnes, 54, a real estate agent who has restored several other historic buildings in the community. “Over time, we’ve just given it life on the street.”
Kepnes and Sowers bought the house for $800,000 in October 2019 but came close to selling it in 2020 as the pandemic hit, permits stalled and expenses mounted.
“We were sitting in the living room and said, ‘What do we want to do?’” Kepnes said. “‘Do we let this go’? Because something like this doesn’t ever come around twice. We said, ‘Okay, let’s do it.’”
The decision was followed by two years of sweat and tears, according to Sowers.
“You gotta be all in,” said Sowers, 48, who also operates River House Pizza in Ellicott City. “It’s a lot of work, it’s money, it’s risk.”
With few contractors willing to take on the project, the couple did much of the handiwork themselves, climbing scaffolding, jackhammering away plaster and landscaping the grounds.
While modernizing the house’s plumbing and electrical systems, they also took care to restore historic details, including the original old-growth pine floors, stone fireplaces and a manual doorbell sourced from a château in England.
Maryland’s past is literally embedded in the walls, which were coated in stucco made of ground oyster shells and horsehair.
“There’s just so much history here,” Kepnes said. “I feel a deep pride to be able to ... be contributing positively one building at a time.”
Mt. Ida from past to present
Mt. Ida’s story mirrors that of the city that surrounds it.
Built in 1828, the house was designed by architect N.G. Starkweather in the Greek Revival style and made of rubble stone stuccoed in old Maryland gold, a color that Kepnes and Sowers maintained. It was built for William Ellicott, the grandson of Andrew Ellicott, one of the community’s founding brothers.
From the front porch, Mt. Ida’s inhabitants were greeted with panoramic views of the Patapsco Valley and sounds of recently invented steam engines rumbling along the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.
Judge John S. Tyson moved his family into the home in the 1850s and his youngest daughter Ida is believed to be the house’s namesake. As Tyson fought off creditors, his sister-in-law, Anna M. Hopkins, took over ownership of the property, where she also kept several enslaved persons, according to local historian Marlena Jareaux.
Ida Tyson lived into the 1920s and remained in the house, which was eventually bought by Louis T. Clark, a prominent local attorney.
From 1930 to 1959, Clark and his wife resided at Mt. Ida, which through the years hosted gatherings for their 11 children and 24 grandchildren.
“The great thing about Mt. Ida was that [for] all of the holidays, Christmas and Easter especially, everybody would come,” said Ellicott City resident Anne Clark Schoenhut, 76, education chair of the Howard County Historical Society and one of Clark’s granddaughters. “It was pretty exciting when you’re a kid.”
Larry Caldwell, a cousin of Anne Clark Schoenhut, looked forward to traveling to Mt. Ida from Michigan every year and remembered exploring the old mansion’s grounds with his cousins, with whom he played hide and seek and built snowmen.
“One of the spookiest things was going down to the basement,” said Caldwell, 76, who now lives in Connecticut. “It was these winding stairs and it was a dirt floor down there.”
After the Clarks’ deaths, Mt. Ida played myriad roles in the community, including office space for the county courthouse and the short-lived Maryland Central News, a weekly newspaper. Although the house fell into disrepair, it was saved from destruction by the Miller Land Company in the 1970s.
Mt. Ida was featured as the Historic Ellicott City Inc.’s Decorator Show House in 1995 and 2013 to offer tours and showcase local designers’ work. But by the late 2010s, it stood vacant and was being used as a de facto dog park, according to longtime Ellicott City residents and neighbors Ched and Ann Hogg.
The Hoggs say they can scarcely believe the makeover the house has received, as weeds have been hacked back, fresh paint applied and shutters put in place.
“It’s almost kind of a Cinderella story,” said Ann Hogg, 78. “Knowing the other properties on the street that Kimberly has metamorphosed, it was always a secure feeling knowing that it was going to be done well.”
History comes full circle
The full renovation effort took Kepnes and Sowers nearly two years and cost about as much as they originally paid for the property.
It wasn’t until April 2021 that they finally received their building permit and dust started flying. Any changes made to Mt. Ida’s exterior also had to be approved by the county’s Historic Preservation Commission.
“They were thinking about putting a limit on the number of times you could be in front of them because we were there [so often],” Kepnes said.
She said she and Sowers can now look at their finished product with pride. They envision The Inn at Mt. Ida playing host to vacation rentals as well as special family events, from birthday parties and bar mitzvahs to anniversaries and weddings. The inn comes as a package; individual rooms cannot be rented by unrelated individuals or groups.
In addition to four bedrooms and three full and three half-bathrooms, the renovated house has twin dining parlors and a finished basement. Private chef and catering services, courtesy of Sowers, are also available.
Howard County Times: Top stories
The inn is a short walk from Ellicott City’s historic Main Street as well as the Patapsco River, where Kepnes and Sowers became engaged in 2016.
“I can’t think of anybody better to have it end up in their hands,” Schoenhut said.
With bookings now open online, Kepnes and Sowers hope the inn honors Mt. Ida’s past while welcoming a new generation of visitors to Ellicott City.
“We gave the building another 200 years, probably,” Sowers said.
History came full circle when Caldwell called Kepnes to let her know the Clark family would be having a reunion in Ellicott City in July. More than 60 years after their grandparents lived there, the cousins are again planning to visit the restored Mt. Ida together.
“I’m looking forward to being able to walk up those steps,” Schoenhut said. “I kind of want to wait until the rest of them are there too to see their reaction.”
To learn more about The Inn at Mt. Ida, visit: https://bookmtida.com/.