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Laurel Holiday House Tour brings to life 'Old Laurel feeling'

Temperatures pushing 70 may not have been in tune with the season Saturday afternoon, but the mild weather conjured a pleasant day for those attending the Laurel Historical Society's biennial Holiday House Tour.

Pat Higgins, of Silver Spring, said she was "born and raised" in Laurel and still attends St. Philip's Episcopal Church on Main Street. Members of her family have resided in Laurel since 1889.

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"I love the town and I love going inside the old houses that I've wondered about my whole life," Higgins said. "Laurel may be huge, but there's still that old Laurel feeling."

A tradition that began in May 1976 when the history group first organized as the Laurel Horizon, the tour invites visitors into private homes and businesses that are decked out for the holidays.

According to Clayton Cooper Jr., a volunteer who organized this year's event and whose house was showcased in 2013, ticket sales ($15-20 each) help finance general operations, public outreach and other Laurel Historical Society events.

Typically raising about $3,000, the event draws 150–200 tour-goers eager to peek at interior renovations and discover the decor hiding inside the historic townscape. The identity of the homes on the stops is kept under wraps until the tour kickoffs at the Laurel Museum.

Laurel Historical Society Volunteer Margie McCeney, whose house was featured in 2007, served on this year's tour committee and issued wristbands and programs on Saturday.

"It's nice to see how people have individualized their homes," McCeney said. "Each one in Old Town is unique."

"This is a lot of fun to do, especially for the night-before tour with all of the property owners that participate," said Marlene Frazier, a committee member for more than a decade.

In addition to five stops at private homes, this year's tour offered entrance to an old-world family business located in the Laurel Arts District, a nonprofit theater on Main Street and a temporary art gallery set up in an empty rental property. Self-guided tour-goers could visit the stops in any order.

Listed first in the program, A.M. Kroop and Sons on C Street specializes in crafting equestrian boots. The interior looks much like it did when the family business started some 80 years ago, with specialty machines dating back to 1916.

Accompanied by her standard poodle mix, Kloe, and wearing a pair of boots made by her dad, owner Randy Kroop said the shop's customers have included Hall of Fame jockey Willie Shoemaker as well as musicians Carly Simon, Madonna and Leon Redbone.

Kroop pointed to the outsole of her boots. The stitches, she said, were concealed using a machine that is no longer available to her.

Terry Stetson, a former Laurel resident who moved to Glenwood with his wife, DeDe in 2010, said it was "interesting to see the craftsmanship."

At the circa 1878 Levin house on Main Street, Society Board of Directors Chairwoman Jhanna Levin surrounds herself with prolific collections, including a gorgeous antique cash register from L&L Antiques, a shop owned by her mother, Louise Eldridge, from 1991-2004 that once occupied the storefront where Sean Patrick's Pet Spa is now located.

"I grew up like this," Levin said. "My grandmother's and mother's house looked like this; I've added more color, but more is always better when decorating."

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The third stop listed — the storefront that is now Laurel Mill Playhouse — appears in a photograph taken by amateur photographer Bert Sadler in the early 20th century with a horse and wagon out front.

Playhouse Liaison Maureen Rogers said the little theater — which owns the property — enjoyed participating in the Holiday House Tour.

Rogers said it was "awesome" to be able to connect with patrons who had not seen the theater's upgrades, and to see the tour-goers' interest in hearing about the history of the building and of the Laurel troupe. She said it was like "catching up with all of Laurel."

Another tour stop, the home of Mike and Ela Peden, was a "shotgun house," a deep, narrow style popular from the end of the Civil War to the 1920s, likely built just before the turn of the century.

"You shot the gun [through the front door] and it went all the way through," Mike Peden said.

A renovation and remodeling contractor, Peden said he and Ela did all of the refurbishing work themselves, but that she was mostly responsible for the "flair."

Kathy Huber, a Laurel resident who serves on the Fourth of July committee, said Ela Peden was "very brave for allowing people upstairs to see all of her rooms."

Sandy Witek said she found out about the tour because she works with the owner of one of the houses

"The houses are all extremely different because of the diverse families who inhabit them are," Witek said.

Likely built between 1865 and 1878, Kevin Allen's spacious home boasts beautiful hardwood floors and a spotless modern decor. In his front room, a large aquarium houses a hefty turtle, named Nefertiti, he said, after the African queen.

A ceiling-high Christmas tree near the entrance, a Kwanzaa/Christmas mannequin and a symbolic Kwanzaa display in the kitchen pay tribute to the two holidays.

Cooper, the tour organizer, said the Gallery at 515 was a "funky collaboration" between the tour committee and the Laurel Arts District Committee, headed by Ada Ghuman.

"Meeting and collaborating with new people, exploring new ideas and bringing people in the community together satisfies my soul," Cooper said.

Owners Jo Blair and Amy Knox loaned the empty house that displayed the work of more than a dozen artists in various media; two pieces — Ada Ghuman's "Acrylic Angel" (acrylic) and D. Angel Sifuentes "Winter Birch" (acrylic) — had sold midway through the tour.

The last stop listed in the program was a circa 1900 house purchased in August by newbie Laurelites Albert Kleine and Rita Halpert, who said they've found everything they wanted in their freshly renovated home in an Old Town neighborhood.

A 90-year-old neighbor told Kleine she used to play in his house as a little girl, he said. The couple eats out and shops on Main Street, and Kleine said they are comfortable biking to places outside of walking distance.

This was the first time that 11-year-old Liam Brinton took the Holiday House Tour.

"All these old houses look very nice while keeping original items from old Laurel," he said.

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