A decorator for all seasons

House: Francis Clark puts thousands of lights on his home at Christmas, but his devotion to display all year, even at holiday-deprived times, separates him from the decorating pack.

May 09, 2001|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

In his mind's calendar, Francis "Nuney" Clark begins the year on the Friday after Thanksgiving. That's when he starts the five-day process of decorating for Christmas, with thousands of lights and dozens of holiday figures.

Then the first week of January arrives and those decorations come down, as they do at houses everywhere.

Clark, however, is just warming up. By Jan. 15, he has his Valentine's Day decorations up -- red lights, hearts, Cupids. The segue to St. Patrick's Day requires one of the quickest changes of the year. An early Easter can make it even tougher. Sometimes he combines the two and puts the bunnies out with green hats and shamrocks.

But it's the day after Easter that separates the men from the boys in this game. Although many homeowners decorate their yards for the major holidays -- including Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Halloween and Thanksgiving -- only the true fanatics find a way to celebrate the holiday-deprived days of late April and early May, not to mention empty August.

Clark's summer display is up now. A modest effort by his standards, it features 50-plus items and no fewer than eight welcome signs. He has not put out his cow and pig lawn sprinklers, but he will, if you ask. A pair of geese, one constant in this ever-changing yard, are wearing baseball uniforms. But Clark is not satisfied.

"It looks a little bare," he says, surveying his handiwork.

Welcome to the "Happy House," which features some sort of yard display 365 days a year -- unless it's leap year, and then it's 366. Mention "that house on Kenilworth Drive" in Towson and those who travel this busy stretch of road between North Charles Street and Bosley Avenue will know the place in question is 1032.

Neighbors use it as a landmark. Strangers write fan letters. Passers-by show up on the doorstep, introduce themselves and ask to meet the homeowner.

Last month, independent filmmakers asked if Clark could decorate his house for Christmas, circa 1970. After checking photographs, he did his house and a neighbor's, in exchange for nothing more than the promise of tickets.

Neighbor Marge McKnight says: "It does look nice, and he puts a lot of work into it." Visitors used to comment on the spectacle, but no more. "At one time, they said, `Oh, that house that's always decorated,'" she says. "Now they take it for granted."

Clark doesn't.

It began innocently enough, as hobbies often do, about 30 years ago. (Clark, 66, does not consider his yard an obsession, or even the biggest demand on his time.) An artist friend, Paul Charles, built a Santa Claus and sleigh for Clark's roof, almost as a gag.

A few years later, Charles showed up with a castle so elaborate that it took four men two days to put it up. Clark used it for several years. He doesn't think it's coincidental that he also went through three roofs on his split foyer home. Neither does Charles.

"We got him started ... but we can't take credit for what he's doing now," says Charles, who now lives in Ocean City.

Clark believes that only he can achieve what is in his mind's eye. Take the year he had a cancer operation -- a successful one, but his doctor told him to avoid vigorous activity. They reached a compromise, allowing Clark to decorate with the help of friends. It was never quite right.

His wife, Jan, pretends to scoff. A meticulous housekeeper, she's not much for clutter, and his decorations are in a backyard shed.

He tries to be considerate. Lighted displays are turned off at 11 p.m. Aural effects -- carols at Christmas, the standard repertoire of spooky Halloween sounds -- are kept to a minimum.

By the same token, Clark is careful not to deprive the neighborhood of his work. If he has to go out during Christmas season, for example, he hires a "baby sitter" to stay in the house, so he can leave the lights on without worrying about electrical shorts.

Of course, there are always critics. A driver once screamed, "Hey, you nut!" as Clark stood in his yard. For several years, an anonymous correspondent has written Clark to complain that his Easter display, with its emphasis on rabbits, is sacrilegious.

And then there was the day several years ago -- Clark is vague on dates -- when he came outside and found a goose missing. Well, most of the goose was gone. The thieves had left behind its head and this note: "The Baron strikes again."

Clark went to Pasadena to buy a new goose and discovered a woman who made costumes for geese. He had been purchasing the outfits via mail order from Indiana, so this represented a significant savings. (Dressing a goose isn't cheap -- about $25 per outfit.)

Nothing about Clark's endeavor is cheap. He estimates that he has spent $12,000 to $15,000 on supplies, and that's not including the electric bills.

"I do even more inside," he says. "You really need to see the inside."

But the outside is his public art, a monument seen by an estimated 15,000 drivers a day, according to a neighborhood traffic study. Clark believes all his displays are in good taste, not like -- but he wouldn't want to criticize anyone else. To each his own, Clark says.

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