Makeover for a mansion

Sykesville: The last time the Town Council tried to repair the Town House it took matters into its own hands. This time the council is doing the job right.

July 09, 1999|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

A century-old mansion that presides over Sykesville as the seat of town government is getting a face lift -- but this time the Town Council won't have to strip wallpaper and slap on paint to make it look nice.

Crews recently removed yellowing aluminum siding from the exterior of the Town House and exposed the original shingles. Carpenters are repairing the wood and replacing trim. Painters are scheduled this week and will re-create the original deep red-brown exterior.

More than $30,000 in repairs are long overdue. The siding was rusting and could have ruined the underlying wood. The walls leaked and would stain the interior plaster. The council chamber's new wallpaper was water-stained weeks after it was hung.

Thirty years ago, when Sykesville bought the house, the disorganized government was so eager to have a place to call its own that the Town Council did the renovations.

"The town didn't have even a room," said Thelma Wimmer, 90, a former councilwoman who was elected in 1968. "The clerk took papers home at night.

"They were so disorganized they once forgot to hold an election."

In the building's attic, where dust and archives mingle, years of official minutes that date to the town's founding in 1904 show that the council used to meet in members' homes or at the bank, the hardware store or the parish house.

When a spacious Main Street home came on the market in 1969, Wimmer urged officials to buy it. The town paid $35,000 for the 16-room mansion built in 1883.

Known as the Town House, the stately white Victorian overlooks the Patapsco River, the CSX rail lines and rows of colorful storefronts along Main Street.

John and Marie K. McDonald, original owners of the Town House, "housed summer boarders during the tourist season," according to historical records. Fading photographs show guests gathered on the wraparound porch and picnics on a sweeping lawn. The mansion seemed to be at the center of town social life.

When it was time to convert the house into municipal offices, Wimmer and other council members supplied the labor themselves.

"I took my garden sprayer to the walls and took off three layers of old paper," said Wimmer.

"We spent evenings and Saturdays scraping and painting," she said. "But we started using it right away, even while we were scraping the walls."

Eventually, a town hall evolved. Pictures of every Town Council were hung in the foyer. The parlor became the council chamber; the clerk treasurer took over the dining room; the mayor was on the enclosed side porch.

The Police Department had the rest of the downstairs space and frequently handcuffed prisoners to the fireplace. The receptionist sat near the double doorway at the base of a winding oak stairway, a niche that easily held a desk and filing cabinets.

Wimmer was a one-woman, unpaid maintenance staff, making sure the hardwood floors stayed polished and the marble dust-free.

"I washed windows, cleaned floors, made curtains for the kitchen and trimmed the bushes," she said. "I could not stand to let it get dirty. It was my second home."

Wimmer lost the 1972 election by six votes but still considered the Town House her personal mission. As Sykesville's beautification chairman, she volunteered there for 20 more years.

Previous owners had left the largest and most cumbersome furniture in the building -- an elaborate hall tree and oak sideboard are still there.

"I thought, why not start collecting antique furniture to put in the Town House?" said Wimmer.

Much of the collection was displayed in the Room of History on the second floor. But in the 1980s, that room became the town manager's office. Wimmer had to find storage space in the Town House attic, her own garage, "even under my bed."

A few years ago, the collection was moved to the Gatehouse Museum, a building that once marked the entry to Springfield Hospital. Wimmer's portrait hangs in the dining room there.

"She looks right at members of the Historic Commission when they have their monthly meeting," said Jim Purman, archivist and curator. "It is like she is keeping them honest."

Sometime in the 1970s, long before Sykesville had a Historic District Commission to guard the character of its old buildings, aluminum siding was hammered over the shingles at the Town House.

"My guess is they didn't want to paint," said Wiley Purkey, local business owner and member of the town Historic District Commission. "They thought they could save it forever by encapsulating it in aluminum. Instead, they covered up work that had to be done and didn't maintain the wood."

The original shutters were lost and much of the distinguished trim was chiseled away to flatten surfaces. But Purkey said all can be restored.

Through research, Purkey has determined that the original color was a deep red-brown. White became trendy after the turn of the century, he said. So the building will be returned to its 19th-century look with dark green shutters.

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