They might be museums. The two Bolton Hill houses are dignified enough, and the most finicky curator would be happy to snap up such fine chandeliers and marble fireplace mantels. The rugs are Persian, the prints by Audubon and the atmosphere genteel enough that one is tempted to speak in hushed tones.
Relax. Although the Gamse and Woltereck homes are featured on the Bolton Hill walking tour segment of this year's Maryland House and Garden Pilgrimage, neither is a shrine to bygone elegance. Not only will visitors find no purple velvet ropes stretched in front of the antique furniture, but they will discover that the two houses are as expressive as they are impressive.
When Alan and Barbara Gamse bought their corner town house 20 years ago, they, like many young couples in their 20s, didn't have a lot of cash to spare. "Budget? What budget? We didn't have any money," laughs Alan Gamse, a lawyer.
But the Gamses, Bolton Hill residents since their marriage in 1966, did find a rich-looking residence. The three-story building, which is several feet wider than most neighborhood houses, and four rooms deep instead of three, was built in 1857. The price was modest (especially by today's standards), but the house was replete with aristocratic flourishes, including 13 1/2 -foot-high ceilings -- a mixed blessing in winter, Mr. Gamse admits -- marble mantels (including one in an unusual coral shade in the dining room), a library with built-in mahogany bookcases and handsome display cabinets in the parlor.
Even though funds were limited, the young couple favored a traditional, somewhat formal style -- no beanbag chairs and macrame for this pair, even in the '60s -- and set about furnishing their home in suitable fashion. To heirlooms from both families and gilt-framed paintings from her grandmother, they added pieces from local sales and classified ads.
"We would get the classifieds on Saturday night. If we'd see them when we were at a friend's for dinner, and if there was something we needed, we'd have to go," admits Mrs. Gamse, who manages the gift and antique shop at the Maryland Historical Society.
An especially distinguished note is provided by an enormous mantel mirror, a move-in gift from a friend. The mirror was once owned by Edwin Warfield, governor of Maryland from 1904 to 1908.
The Gamses did some strategic renovation, principally in the kitchen, which now has a modern food preparation island, a casual country-looking dining area, a powder room with hidden laundry facilities and a door leading out to a garden deck. Shortly after the 1977 renovation began, a drunken 15-year-old in a "borrowed" Cadillac plowed right into the side of the kitchen, doing $15,000 worth of damage. Thanks to a loyal crew, the work was finally completed -- on the eve of the house's first appearance on the Pilgrimage!
A magazine story was done on the house after its first full-scale redecoration in 1981. A picture from that time shows the parlor looking breezy, almost tropical, with white walls, unadorned hardwood floors, and an apricot brocade sofa set in front of the white-shuttered windows.
Today's room is very different, although much of the furniture is the same. A recent redecoration by Claudia Sennett gave the room a look that was at once more sumptuous and more intimate. The furniture was rearranged, and much of it, including a couple of quirky thrift-shop chairs, has been reupholstered in rich blues or in plaids or tapestries in shades of blue, green and warm red.
The most noticeable difference, however, is the fact that the room is now a dark, glossy ivy green. Color makes a big impact in this house; the hallway, which is lined with vintage prints of Baltimore scenes and wildfowl art, is a vivid persimmon-red, and the library is a gentle periwinkle. During the redecoration the dining room received a brightening when its buff walls were covered with lively chinoiserie paper.
It looked great then; it looks great now. The reason for the change, Mr. Gamse explains, was not dissatisfaction with the former look, but because change is part of living.
"You go out to an antique show, or shopping, and see a piece you really like, so you buy it. Every once in a while you get to the stage we are at with our library: one book in, one book out! Things are being recycled constantly."
The house, despite its formality, has always been child-friendly. The two Gamse children, Erin, now 23 and Mac, 20, coexisted peacefully with such things as apricot brocade and cut crystal. The library was the children's favorite playroom, Barbara Gamse reports; if company was coming she'd scoop up the toys that were lying around and deposit them in a big brass pot she kept for the purpose.
"We raised our two kids down here, and they absolutely loved it," says Barbara Gamse. "Both of them became urban children, and wanted to settle in cities."