Notre Dame alumnae donated much of center's eclectic decor

THE ALLURE OF NOYES HOUSE

January 13, 1991|By Carleton Jones

The house stands straight and square on its North Baltimore hillside. A diagram of its interior is almost like a doll's house, four stories of large rooms that are all the same size, except for lower ceilings above the ground floor and in the basement.

That's Noyes House, the alumnae center on the campus of the College of Notre Dame of Maryland. It's a breath of the 1850s Italian revival that somehow has survived the years -- all straight lines and tall windows, all high ceilings, light and air and views of old trees and a parking lot.

This little-known, antebellum relic is something else, however: a sample of what Baltimore families will come up with to help furnish spaces that cry for historic treatment. In the process, the college's alumnae group has lent or given Noyes furnishings that are practically a definition of the taste of Maryland's gentry, past and present.

That taste, repeated many thousands of times on country estates and in town houses of the well-heeled, works out to a blend of "Colonial" antiques and reproductions, mixed with Federal cabinetry and occasional sallies into Victorian exuberance. "Eclectic" is the word for the mix and it works in this sunny yet elegant place that is on its way to rounding out a century and a half of versatile shelter. The once rural mansion has been, at various times, private home, convent, student dorm, college reception center and now an alumnae activities headquarters.

"It's meant a great deal to our alumnae to have an alumnae house that they can call their own," says Barbara Bagli, college director of institutional advancement and a 1978 graduate of the Notre Dame continuing education division. "It's a wonderful environment and the graciousness of the place makes it a great pleasure to work in," she adds.

The building's meeting capacity is about 100 but the range of things housed is wide. "Parties for the trustees, poetry readings and book signings, anything we want to do in the way of a reception for small groups" is a practical candidate for Noyes House events, Ms. Bagli relates. Visiting scholars are given special dinners in their honor.

Nothing has ever been done to damage the integrity of the building, Ms. Bagli points out. When the renovation began in the 1980s all the original fireplaces were intact and the wonderful old ceilings, too, the director notes.

There's an odd and appropriate angle to the furniture choices here. The eclectic approach actually reflected what was probably the mixed decor of the original residents, for wealthy people of pre-Civil War years inherited cabinetry two and three generations back into time. At the same time, they were certainly not immune from buying handsome, machine-made case goods, things that are today's mid-Victorian antiques.

One James Malcolm, a prominent attorney, called the Notre Dame building "Montrose" when it was his 22-acre estate before the Civil War. (Montrose fought for King Charles I in the English revolution). In June of 1873, the School Sisters of Notre Dame bought the building for $25,500 plus a ground rent as an addition to what was then called a "collegiate institute" for women. It's been college property ever since and it is performing practical functions housing Notre Dame's alumnae, public relations and development staff.

Sensitivity has been involved in making Noyes House bright. On the ceremonious first floor, modest swags of rich cloth rather than heavy draperies have been used above the tall, multipaned windows to show off their elegance and maximize illumination. Upstairs in office space, interior movable panels define the work areas in a layout that carefully avoids altering the original fabric of the one-time bedroom floors.

A double parlor, divided by elegant classic columns and hung with crystal chandeliers, (the standard antebellum reception room of older East Coast mansions) carries much of Noyes House's distinction. There are matched marble fireplaces and upholstered chairs in a variety of styles, including Federal and Victorian. Oriental rugs and traditional cabinetry (a china closet and a secretary, notably) are major furnishing items.

Of similar elegance are a small parlor, equipped with distinguished Empire pieces including a sleigh-styled sofa, and a dining room where an 1810 sideboard, American-made in the Hepplewhite manner, is topped by an elaborate mirror of more exuberant style. Nearly 40 pieces of silver service from various epochs, including a Reed & Barton tea set, have been contributed to the Noyes House's inventory. One all-antique loan group was appraised at $50,000. (The name Noyes honors the family of three college alumnae of the 1920s, Mary Noyes Weber, Alice Noyes Babcock and Cornelia Noyes Chamberlain.)

Architects of the renovation, Cho, Wilks & Benn, selected color schemes for building and the fenestration designer was Robert Zimmerman of Baltimore. Upstairs in the director's office, an Oriental rug and turn-of-the-century living room pieces create a hospitable mood. Japanese prints decorate the office's bathroom.

The furnishing of Noyes Alumnae House was not without its personalized contributions. An intriguing second floor doorstop is a piece of needlepoint enwrapping a brick and reading "Noyes House." It was made by Jane Tacka, of the class of 1950. A college alumnae group that does embroidery, crocheting and needlework donates the materials and labor for many craft projects, and proceeds of sales go to college programs.

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