A house's spirit revived

Commemoration: A Westminster woman celebrates a common bond forged through a 100-year-old house.

August 07, 1999|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN STAFF

Laurie Walters loves her house so much she decided to throw it a birthday party.

The idea was originally just a quirky excuse to ease the summer doldrums. Walters even wondered whether friends would think her a bit loony to commemorate the "birth" of a building.

"I've not met anyone who's been to a 100th birthday party for a house," she said.

More than 70 guests -- former occupants, neighbors who hung out at the house in their childhood, even people hired to paint or renovate it -- are expected to gather for the wine-and-cheese affair tonight at the gray-and-mauve Victorian in Westminster, which the Walters bought in 1982.

The highlight of tonight's gala may be the trivia game. Walters plans to post questions in every room asking guests, for example, what color the house was when the Walters bought it (white with green shudders) or what year the family room was added (1986).

"It will encourage people to wander," Walters said.

The hostess will be serving fruit, cheese, and cucumber sandwiches -- all goodies that may have been found at a party in 1899.

The event has blossomed into something more than just a birthday party. It has become, in many ways, a cultural study of Westminster over the past century -- through the lives of former residents.

For example, the late Denton Gehr is the only known occupant to serve time in prison.

Walters said she would love to know whether $30,000 was still somewhere in the house. That's how much Gehr, who lived in the house in the 1930's, was convicted of embezzling from First National Bank in Westminster, where he was a cashier. Walters said she thinks -- unfortunately -- that Gehr moved from the house before committing his crime.

Another occupant, the late Charles W. Havens, was well-known in the city, coaching football at Western Maryland College, serving as Westminster's recreation director and teaching junior high school.

Charles W. Havens III, the football coach's son, said he was a little puzzled when he received an invitation to tonight's gathering.

"I thought at first they were calling to say they had found old love letters we had written and hid in the attic," said Havens, who now lives in Washington, D.C. He plans to attend the festivity.

Nostalgia

What is likely to draw guests together is nostalgia, and how this 1899 house has stubbornly remained the same as the city around it has evolved.

Sure, Walters had the sleeping porch -- which many old-timers fondly remember -- removed in favor of a family room.

But the "pocket" doors that can be rolled out from inside the walls to close off the living room are still there. So are the large bay windows that face the quaint park across the street. So are the indoor shutters on the bedroom windows.

The city has clearly seen change -- certainly since 1938, when the Hollinger family moved into the home.

A rural past

Joy Hollinger Myerly, who lived in the house as a child but now resides in North Carolina, wrote to Walters that she could not attend this evening, but she included seven pages of remembrances from her time there.

She recalled horses and buggies hitched along Green Street. She remembered the hog-slaughtering that went on across the alley, sending squeals of pigs through the neighborhood and bloody water streaming down the street.

"And the chicken house added a rural touch -- yes, we raised chickens there," wrote Myerly. She said Tom, a neighbor's hired hand, used to kill the chickens for the family, who had quite a time adjusting to the unique sights and sounds of an agriculture community after moving from Baltimore.

Myerly said Tom "would laugh -- as we screamed -- when the chickens ran around headless."

Connections

If Westminster is interconnected -- Myerly wrote that in her day, "everyone seemed to be related" -- perhaps it is no coincidence that the elder Charles Havens taught Walters in eighth grade.

While he didn't live in the house, Jeff Smelser ate many a meal there years ago and will be stepping into the house tonight for the first time in four decades. The 1958 Westminster High School graduate and football player came often as a teen-ager to visit teammate Richard Havens, another of the coach's sons.

He said it was the hangout for about five football players who would traipse after practice to Baugher's Restaurant for chocolate milkshakes, then to the Havens' household for a home-cooked meal.

"I called it the old regular Carroll County dish -- meat and potatoes," Smelser said.

One invitee -- Abe Weller, a contractor who built the family room -- saw nothing odd about Walters' invitation to celebrate her home's centennial.

"There's just this grandeur to these old homes," Weller said. "They don't make them this way anymore."

Pub Date: 8/07/99

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