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MAKING A MANSION OUT OF A GHOSTLY OLD RUIN Elkridge Furnace Inn shakes off cobwebs to regain its elegance

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Even ghosts prefer pretty houses to haunt.

If Mr. Ellicott had returned to his former home, the Elkridge Furnace Inn, several years ago, he would have found it suitably spooky, perhaps, but hardly suited to the fastidious tastes of a wealthy 19th century gentleman.

"A youth group had a haunted house here two years in a row, and they didn't even need to decorate!" says Dan Wecker with a laugh. "All the cobwebs, the dust, everything was here."

Today, the red brick colonial presents a far more elegant picture, thanks to Mr. Wecker and his family, the inn's new "resident curators," and to Historic Ellicott City Inc., which selected it for its eighth annual Decorators Show House.

Were the late iron merchant to glide into his home today, he would be as pleased as a ghost can be. He would find the floors polished to a high gloss, and the ceiling medallions and marble fireplaces as stately as ever. In the rooms, he would note a veritable catalog of 19th century decorating styles: neoclassical polish, high Victorian splendor, cozy country simplicity.

The actual renovation work has been done by Mr. Wecker and his brother and partner Steve, who were given a long-term lease by the state 2 1/2 years ago, in exchange for fixing up and caring for the historic property. The Weckers have put about $200,000, as well as thousands of hours of "sweat equity," into the inn, which they are planning to turn into a restaurant and bed-and-breakfast, and headquarters for their catering business.

"Last year, the Weckers did the catering for the show house," explains Janie Reynolds of the show house committee. "They had been wanting the committee to come and take a look at what they had. We were concerned that it wouldn't be ready in time. But they had come so far in their restoration process that it was completely feasible to see decorators coming in and transforming it."

The Elkridge Furnace Inn actually includes several buildings, including two connected red-brick houses and a couple of tin-roofed, plank-and-beam cabins that may once have been slave quarters. The oldest of the red-brick houses is believed to have been built in 1744 by James Maccubin, nephew of Charles Carroll, Barrister. It was a tavern, which served the workers at Elkridge Furnace, an iron foundry in the area, and the ships that docked at Elkridge Landing on the Patapsco River, then second only to Annapolis as a major Maryland port. (The river still meanders through the woods just north of the property, but it's a mere stream these days.)

When, according to the Weckers' findings, the Ellicott brothers bought both the furnace and the tavern in the early 19th century, the property became something of a self-contained community, like a medieval fiefdom.

"This building served as a kind of general store to the people who worked here," Steve Wecker explains. "There are dormitory rooms on the second floor. Not only did you work for this guy, you came in and ate in his restaurant, bought his goods, slept in his rooms, and if you had a nickel left over at the end of the year I would imagine he'd figure out a way to get that.

Around 1810, one of the Ellicotts -- the Weckers aren't sure which -- built a house for himself. It was built of a more expensive brick than the simply styled tavern building to which it was attached, with high ceilings and aristocratic detailing. It is this house that will serve as the decorators show house; the first floor of the restored tavern will serve as a lunch room and gallery, with art by members of the New Arts Alliance.

The intention was to keep the decorating in a period vein, according to assistant design chairman Margaret Williams, who acted as liaison between the Weckers and the designers. The house's age and the curators' plans for its use helped the designers decide on traditional decor, with little of the rampant originality seen in many show houses. The rooms aren't museum pieces, by all means, and include combinations of new, reproduction and antique furniture, but the results would not make Mr. Ellicott start in surprise.

The most contemporary of the rooms is the front parlor, designed by Caroline Dare of Dare Designs in Simpsonville, who uses a duo-tone color scheme, neoclassical touches and "vintage" (not-quite-antique) furniture in a sophisticated design that combines clean modern lines with period richness.

"The scope of the room, the high ceilings, the molding, dictated the design all by themselves. And the fireplace, which includes gold and a cloudy silver, said everything I needed to say," Ms. Dare explains. Using the black veined marble as her guide, she painted the woodwork dark gray, sponge-painted with pewter and gold metallic-flecked paint. This darkness contrasts with light, dappled walls. A sectional sofa from the 1930s, with curvy French lines, was refinished and upholstered in gray floral damask, and sits on a custom-made white rug with a matching dark gray border. Ficus trees with silk leaves and real branches soften the corners.

The dining room next door is very different; designers Kittredge Viessmann and Amy Zubbas of MS Interiors, Laurel, devised a formal room, with walls the color of ripe wheat, a lush border of roses and acanthus, rose damask chairs, and Old Master-style paintings. Still, the two rooms harmonize; the dining room's reds and greens are picked up by pillows, a flower arrangement and an enameled egg in the living room.

"We were on the phone quite a bit," Ms. Dare says. "We exchanged fabric samples back and forth."

Through a small butler's pantry, made charming with floral stencils, is a spacious country kitchen by Enalee Bounds of Ellicott's Country Store. A very low-tech colonial kitchen, we might add, with no appliances at all.

On the second floor of the family's wing, are two Victorian bedrooms: one is masculine, with deep garnet walls lined with art and a double bed inlaid with wood and mother-of-pearl, the other is ultra-feminine, with white wicker furniture, a floral upholstered bed coronet with a canopy of mosquito netting, and a display of Victorian and vintage clothing.

The third floor, once the children's wing, is now a suite of rooms, with a bedroom and bath, a nursery filled with antique toys, and a light-filled breakfast room. Hand-painted with flowers and trompe l'oeil plates by Anke Kelly, this pale celadon green room has as its centerpiece a beautiful half-moon window, lightly dressed in knotted gauze.

According to Patty Wecker, Steve's wife, the Weckers are planning to open their restaurant shortly after the show house closes, operating from their current commercial kitchen. Expansion into a B&B; is planned for next year.

Don't expect a show house-perfect look right away, though. More practical concerns -- including installing a commercial kitchen in the house's basement -- must be met before the family's dream of a fine, upscale hostelry comes true. It's a very expensive proposition, as the Weckers, not the state, are paying the bills.

"Some of the articles we see can tend to give the impression that the state gives you this mansion," Dan Wecker says. "What actually happens is, they give you something that nobody else would take, and you make a mansion out of it!"

Show house information

At almost 250 years of age, the Elkridge Furnace Inn is beginning a new life. Through Oct. 27, the building (which includes a tavern building built in 1744 and a house, circa 1810) will serve as the eighth annual decorators show house sponsored by Historic Ellicott City Inc.

The house, which will feature more than 20 rooms and areas designed by local interior decorators, will be open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays to Fridays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. It will be closed Mondays.

Many of the furnishings, including antiques, will be available for purchase, and a gift boutique will offer crafts, jewelry, flower arrangements and homemade baked goods. A dining area will be set up in the old tavern, offering food prepared by the Weckers Inc.

The Elkridge Furnace Inn is at 5741 Furnace Ave. in Elkridge. To get there from Baltimore, go south on Route 1 to Elkridge, then make a left on Levering Avenue. Make another left onto Main Street, and a right onto Furnace. There will be free parking on the site.

Visitors are asked not to wear high-heeled shoes, not to take photos, and not to smoke, eat or drink in the house.

Admission is $7, $6 for senior citizens. (Children under 12 are not permitted in the show house.) Proceeds will benefit Historic Ellicott City's restoration projects.

For further information, call 461-3453.

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