It was an “aha" moment for Paulette Lutz.
While working at the Museum of Howard County History, on Court Avenue in Ellicott City, Lutz began noticing more and more couples in wedding gowns and tuxedos coming out of the courthouse across the street.
“I thought to myself, 'Why get married in an office building when you could be married next door in a beautiful, romantic-looking church with stained glass windows?’ ” said Lutz, deputy director of the Howard County Historical Society, which owns and operates the museum.
That casual observation was the nexus of an idea to promote the museum, formerly the First Presbyterian Church of Ellicott City, as a wedding venue.
Though some couples have made special arrangements in recent years to hold weddings at the museum, the historical society never actively marketed it to engaged couples until now.
What cemented the idea’s appeal for Lutz was watching newly married couples leave the courthouse and cross the street to get their photos taken in front of the old church. The granite building dates to 1894 and is an example of the Gothic Revival architecture popular at the time.
“If couples just want to come in, get married and leave, they can do that,” Lutz said. “If they want to stay and have their reception here, they can do that, too. We’re very, very flexible.”
Statistics confirm Lutz’s observation about the increasing number of civil marriage ceremonies taking place at the Howard County courthouse.
There were 1,077 marriages there in 2018, compared to 673 in 2010, according to Wayne A. Robey, clerk of the Circuit Court.
Members of the clerk’s office handle the civil ceremonies, which take about five minutes and cost $25, Robey said.
Couples purchase a marriage license for $50 in the county offices on Marshalee Drive in Elkridge and can be married in the county after a mandatory statewide waiting period of 48 hours.
Aside from siphoning some of the couples who might otherwise have chosen to get married at the courthouse, Lutz is betting the museum’s setting will appeal to anyone looking for an intimate and unique venue for 75 or fewer guests.
The museum is situated after a hairpin turn on Court Avenue, high above the hustle and bustle of Main Street and just feet from the immense courthouse building.
The former church has belonged to the Howard County Historical Society since 1959, after Alda Hopkins Clark purchased it in memory of her late husband, Fifth Circuit Court Judge James Clark Sr., and donated it to the organization.
The auditorium space where museum events are held has a 30-foot vaulted ceiling, arched stained glass windows and houses a working 1915 A.B. Felgemaker pipe organ.
With a rental rate that starts at $100 an hour, the museum also could attract couples on a tight budget.
“We’re willing to work with couples to give them a wedding that’s as simple or as fancy as they want it to be,” Lutz said.
The rental fee includes tables and chairs, an arch decorated with white lights and silk flowers, and use of the organ. Options that add to the base cost include catering, floral and bakery services, and hiring wedding planner Amanda Nieman.
Bridal and baby showers, vow renewal ceremonies, memorial services, business meetings, and birthday and anniversary parties are some of the other events that can be held at the site. Nonprofit organizations are charged a reduced rate of $75 an hour.
Lutz, who grew up in Font Hill Manor, used to help out at her aunt’s former wedding business in Glen Burnie. She likes to add finishing touches to events at the museum, such as candles, satin chair covers, glittery tablecloth overlays and silk centerpieces.
“I learned a lot from my Aunt Barbara,” she said.
Bride-to-be Nicole Stafford took notice of Lutz’s attention to detail when she decided to book the museum for her bridal shower on July 13.
“My mom found the venue, and I went there to look at it,” said Stafford, 28. “From the moment I walked in, I knew it was the place.”
Stafford and her fiance, Patrick Donovan, plan to marry Sept. 14 in an outdoor ceremony at their Ellicott City home following a two-year engagement.
The couple, who met online, live in the house Stafford grew up in, which was built in 1917 by her great-grandfather. Holding the bridal shower just up the street was a nice bonus, she added.
“The venue is really cool and it’s connected to my history,” she said. “It’s romantic and cozy, and Paulette was so warm and welcoming.”
Stafford also appreciated the venue’s willingness to allow alcohol and homemade food. The shower for 24 guests, which was called “A Bubbly Bridal Brunch,” featured a mimosa bar and chocolate-covered strawberries.
Now that the museum intends to host weddings on a regular basis, a wedding exhibit is being planned for late summer, according to museum assistant Kaitlyn McKay. The working title is “Ellicott City: Maryland’s Wedding Destination.”
McKay said a 1909 newspaper article that delved into the community’s popularity for weddings noted that Ellicott City outranked Rockville in the number of civil marriage ceremonies held.
“Young Baltimore couples looking for a quick wedding got married at the courthouse,” she said, noting they could take a trolley from the city to Main Street.
The planned exhibit will feature marriage licenses for Ellicott City ceremonies — including one belonging to Babe Ruth, who was married at St. Paul’s Catholic Church in 1914 — along with other wedding-themed artifacts.
Shawn Gladden, the historical society’s executive director, said promoting the museum as a wedding venue will boost the organization’s coffers.
“The funds from our museum rentals go directly into our operational budget,” which is $275,000 for fiscal 2020, Gladden said.
The nonprofit receives nearly half of its funding from county, state and humanities grants, he said. Fundraisers and memberships account for just over a third of their income, with private donations, rentals and museum shop sales bringing in another 20%.
For her part, Lutz is excited about the possibilities.
“The museum is such a wonderful space for a wedding,” she said. “We’ll do everything we can to make sure couples love the whole experience.”