Chilly winter's the perfect time for gracious living in old houses; Visiting: Stopping to see friends and neighbors in cozy Victorian rowhouses wards off the season's chill.


WELL-INTENTIONED guests often survey my quarters and ask if it doesn't cost a fortune to heat my 1871 house. I can't always tell if the question is out of concern for my checkbook or whether my old brick pile is just drafty.

Old houses are hard to heat, and expensive too, but that doesn't stop me from owning one with three floors, a cellar, a hidden cistern and old gas pipes hidden in the sandy plaster walls.

Despite the costs associated with heating Baltimore's old houses in the winter, this is their best season of the year.

There is nothing quite like a cozy old parlor on a January afternoon -- the sun is struggling to grow stronger and the light it casts on the old wood floors is the essence of domestic comfort and pleasure.

For the past handful of days I've been making the rounds of open houses and catch-up visits in and around Charles Village. It's the time on the calendar when I gather and give news, enjoy a cup of coffee -- or possibly stronger stuff -- and settle into an upholstered world of comfy furniture and Oriental rugs.

In the world I grew up in on Guilford Avenue, many of my parents' neighbors were older and, as such, adhered to rules of manners that did not allow casual, off-the-cuff drop-in visits. You called on your neighbors when you were invited, for a specific time on a specific date.

The entertaining carried its formal aspects, ones that later generations abandoned in favor of decks, barbecues, cookouts and paper plates.

I am delighted to say these more traditional wintertime visits endure. And so do their formal components. Boxes of Stieff and Kirk flatware appear. Lighted candles in silver or crystal holders come into play. Dining room tables get covered with ironed cloths. The rooms you visit look like settings from Howard Street department stores in the 1950s.

As for the fare at these proper parties, it is traditional too. Look for boxes of Rheb's candies, tins of fruitcake and canisters of salted nuts. And if the menu doesn't suit, you can always abstain.

There's nothing quite like a cold winter afternoon in a Victorian Baltimore rowhouse -- provided the furnace works. (On the opposite side, I'm not a big fan of such a location during a July heat spell when the rugs and the overstuffed furniture emit a stale, summer-in-the-city smell.)

After a couple of marzipan candies and some salted pecans, I settle into a wing chair and dissolve into chatter with my friends and neighbors. Then I glance up at the high ceilings out of the William McKinley era.

The artifacts within these winter-cleaned houses become the objects of conversation. Friends love to tell stories of the enormous gilt-frame mirrors that hang in their front halls. Or how they picked up the dining room rug at a Howard Street auction for $235. Or how they found the armoire in the second-floor front room discarded in an alley 25 years ago.

Then we get to talking about the past, of how the decades of the 1980s and '90s somehow evaporated.

But what doesn't change, too much, is the setting. The Rheb's chocolates may disappear, the sun may drop below the western horizon, but these gracious formal rooms remain the same.

Pub Date: 1/09/99

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