Surrounded by dogwood trees and flowers, a rose-covered trellis and a white faux-marble fountain, a young couple stood poised for marriage.
But this wasn't a lavish park, banquet hall or chapel setting. It was inside the tiny Baltimore County Circuit Court wedding room in Towson, where the flowers and trees are artificial, but the marriages very real and usually take less than 15 minutes.
About 6,000 weddings take place annually in courthouses around metropolitan Baltimore. The most popular times are Friday afternoons, summer months and Valentine's Day. And for some, court clerks say, Maryland is seen as an attractive place because it does not require the blood tests mandated elsewhere, including Pennsylvania.
The couple at the Baltimore County courthouse Friday was David L. Casale Jr., 20, dressed in shorts and sneakers, and Wendy Barnett, 18, in a long, black floral dress. It was 11:25 a.m. They had no appointment. They just walked in, with two black crushed-velvet boxes containing thin, white gold wedding bands.
Baltimore County Circuit Court Clerk Suzanne Mensh, standing behind a podium, opened a white notebook and began reciting the brief speech from the "Marriage Ceremony for Double Ring" form. The couple said their "I do's" and, after Ms. Mensh pronounced them man and wife and said they could kiss, the bride smiled and looked around, embarrassed.
"Well, kiss her already!" said Mr. Casale's stepfather, Robert Borkowski, while holding the young couple's 2-week-old son. Once they kissed and hugged, Mr. Borkowski told the baby: "There, Liam, it's all straightened out."
A flurry of picture-taking was followed by the signing of the marriage license and best wishes from the clerk. It was 11:42 a.m., and the wedding party was ready for lunch.
Couples of all sizes, ages, nationalities and walks of life -- the military, the divorced, people in search of privacy -- come through the courthouse doors. They lay down $25 cash and walk out husband and wife.
"You see them every which way," said Lynne Howell, who performs ceremonies as a supervisor of recording and licensing in Harford County. "You have them in wedding dresses and tuxes, and sometimes we have them in shorts and jeans and work clothes and normal suits. Some people bring a roomful [of guests] and some will just be by themselves."
Sometimes they leave and go right back to work, those performing the ceremonies say -- but other newlyweds would need to change first.
"We had one couple come in, they were dressed as clowns, and the person in the party who stood for them was a professional clown," said Robert Duckworth, clerk of the Circuit Court in Anne Arundel County, where about 1,000 civil ceremonies are performed every year.
Some are done in Spanish for an increasing number of non-English-speaking Latinos who want to wed there, and some are performed for people from around the world visiting historic Annapolis. Although most come from Anne Arundel, he said, people from Nigeria, China, Afghanistan, Japan and South Korea have said their vows there.
Country singer Emmylou Harris said hers in a civil ceremony about six years ago in Howard County's courthouse, where the wedding room is sometimes pushed past capacity by wedding parties, according to Kenneth D. Ridgeway, II, a deputy court clerk.
There have been all kinds of pairs -- from the young couple wed Friday to octogenarians, courthouse workers said.
Donald K. Starr, 73, of Eastwood, picked up his license Friday for a November marriage. When people get a license for $35, they are told they must wait 48 hours before they can get married. And in Baltimore County and some other jurisdictions they get a bonus -- a plastic bag packed with samples of detergent, deodorant, tissues and other toiletries.
"It really does my heart good to see couples' faces light up," added Ms. Mensh.
But not every face does. Mr. Duckworth recalls one Anne Arundel groom who had cold feet. He was expected to meet his bride at the courthouse at 3 p.m. Dec. 30 of last year. At 5 p.m., he still hadn't arrived.
"The bride had been waiting and waiting and waiting. . . . We had 15 successful marriages that day and one broken heart," he said.
But the story had a happy ending: A week later they came back. "He got his courage, and we were able to perform the ceremony -- I was just glad, that all's well that ends well."