Steve and Dan Wecker and their families have painted, rewired, plastered and sanded for two years. Now they're getting ready to show off the results of their labors.
When the Howard County Decorator House show opens next month, the featured attraction will be The ElkridgeFurnace Inn, a 19th-century estate on Furnace Avenue that has been the focus of the Weckers' lives since 1989.
That's when they moved their families to the 16-acre historic property, which dates to the mid-1700s. It has been an iron furnace, a tavern and a private home.
The Weckers acquired the property through a state "curator" program run by the Department of Natural Resources. Under the program, the Weckers live on the property rent-free in exchange for restoring the site to the state's satisfaction.
To keep their part of the bargain, the Weckers have put in thousands of hours of work on the place to transform a dilapidated Greek Revival house into an elegant overnight inn and restaurant.
The centerpiece ofthe property, known as the Elkridge Furnace Complex, is a sprawling red brick house, built in the 1830s and briefly used as a tavern. Theentire complex consists of the remains of an iron furnace, dating to1755, and four other buildings associated with the furnace.
The flood of 1868 destroyed most of the furnace. The main house, probably the home of the furnace owner, has survived two other floods, in 1933and 1972.
By the time the Weckers got the property, it had suffered from years of neglect and had lost all traces of its original grandeur.
Now, looking at the immaculate, newly painted formal dining room with a 12-foot ceiling and brass chandelier, it's hard to imagine the room that Patti Wecker, Steve's wife, describes.
"There was a big hole there," she says, pointing to a wall. "All the molding hadto be redone. The walls were full of mold and had to be scraped and vinegared."
Before the Weckers could even begin work on the place,they took several van-loads of debris from the house. In the attic was a community of 60,000 swarming bees that had to be exterminated.
It was a lot to deal with, coming from a "nice little starter home community" in Eldersburg, Patti Wecker recalls.
The Weckers have taken great care to conform their restoration to the character of the house. A demolished church in South Baltimore provided the bricks forthe path in the front yard. And wood for another project came from abarn built around 1902.
Along the way, the Weckers have come across reminders of the history of the place that make the hard work a little more bearable. Scrawled on a wall in one of the buildings outside the main house is: "Snowed. April 9, 1927."
As the Decorator House show opening approaches, the Weckers are in the midst of a last-minute push to get things ready.
"Right now we're putting in 60 to 80 hours a week, but we're close enough to feel like we're going to make it," says Steve Wecker, 33.
While Steve oversees the managementof the inn, his brother Dan, trained as a chef, will supervise the restaurant.
"He's the steadying influence," Steve says of Dan, 32. "I'm the one who gets to do all the crazy dreams and concoctions. It's a nice mesh."
The project has been in development for about 12 years, mostly in Steve Wecker's head as he meticulously planned his dream country inn.
He subscribed to Country Inn and Colonial Home magazines and went on inn-hunting trips in New England and Pennsylvania, all the while working at a printing business.
"I believed it, I talked it and I think after a while it becomes a part of you," Weckersays. "For five years I was an innkeeper even though I didn't have an inn."
The Weckers were familiar with the Elkridge furnace property when the state advertised it for the
curator program in 1988. They had tried to buy it six years earlier, but the deal fell through,said Ross Kimmel, supervisor of cultural resources management for the state Department of Natural Resources.
On the strength of the Weckers' proposal for the site, the state accepted them for the resident curator program.
"Obviously I had faith in them or I wouldn't have taken a chance on them," Kimmel says. "They seemed to be a good risk."
The Weckers have a 20-year-lease on the property with two 10-year renewable clauses. When the business opens, they will pay the state a percentage of the gross receipts, Kimmel says.
They were fortunate to have some volunteers who worked on the property for a whilein exchange for living there. Members of their church also helped, and occasional community "work days" have drawn between 15 and 75 neighbors ready to do their part.
"It's still been every penny we haveand every extra hour in the day," Patti Wecker says.
Now, with the Decorator House show just around the corner, everything seems to becoming together.
The kitchen probably will be finished in the spring and the guest rooms should be open in a year. After the showcase closes, the inn will serve lunch in the two formal dining rooms.
Eventually the Weckers plan to open a Colonial walking garden and add volleyball courts, a croquet lawn, horseshoe pits and picnic tables for the use of their guests and the community.
"We're confident it'll be a success. We've kind of put our whole lives into it, and we expect good will follow," Steve Wecker says.
The Weckers are having a community work day on Sept. 14 to work on the exterior of the grounds. For more information, call Patti Wecker at 379-0648.
The Howard County Decorator House show runs from Sept. 28 to Oct. 27.