Cottage casts spell over an Irish couple


Charmer: A former cough syrup factory, garage and speakeasy became the charming cottage that won the hearts of an Irish couple.

January 26, 2003|By Marie Gullard | Marie Gullard,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Sam McCready sits in a blue leather wing chair that dominates the cozy northeastern corner of his cottage. He is framed in a halo of baskets in assorted sizes and colors hanging overhead.

To his left is a large fireplace, encased in stone and fitted with a wood-burning stove that softly hisses. Behind him, paneled wall shelves display assorted pieces of Spode china that glisten in the pale light of a winter morning outside his windowed door.

McCready's mood is both reflective and appreciative as he raises his eyes to the exposed, oak ceiling beams. The only other sound in this warm, homey scenario is the tinkle of spoon to teacup.

"If I wasn't living in this house, I'd find it easy to go back to Ireland," he says softly. "This place [Dickeyville] and this house will keep us here."

In 1984, Sam McCready and his wife, Joan, who were both artistic directors at Belfast's Lyric Theatre in Northern Ireland, left their native land to experience more of the world.

After a brief stint off-Broadway, Sam McCready became assistant professor of theater at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, while Joan McCready took a job in the humanities and theater departments at Park School. Both are now retired.

"We loved the weather here," Sam McCready remembers. "What was to be a temporary stay is now permanent."

There were other Baltimore residences before the cottage. They also continued to travel to Belfast, where they have a condo.

Then, in 1991, they came to Dickeyville.

Located in West Baltimore, just south of Gwynns Falls off North Forest Park Avenue, Dickeyville is a historic mill site dating from the 19th century.

This little village within the city limits includes about 118 residential structures that once were the mill workers' cottages or the more spacious dwellings that belonged to the superintendents. The town also contains an active church, a school and a group of mill buildings.

During his first visit to the cottage, Sam McCready delighted in the wealth of vegetation around it - the white dogwood trees, the pink wisteria growing wildly, and the roses. There also was the soothing rush of Gwynns Falls, just yards away from the home.

Here, he sensed the essence of a real cottage garden, complete with a stone wall encircling the house. Here, too, he could walk 200 yards along the river and feel as though he were "strolling the Glens of Antrim back home."

Joan McCready was struck immediately by the cottage, itself. "The charm was astounding," she relates, as though her first visit was yesterday.

The house is nearly square, 26 feet long by 22 feet wide. More than 100 years old, it originally was a one-story, one-room cough syrup factory that serviced the nearby cotton and woolen mills. That explained the huge fireplace on such a narrow wall.

During Prohibition, the tiny dwelling became a speakeasy, and, during the '40s, it saw time as a garage, servicing the trolley lines. The early '50s brought the addition of a second level, built precisely over the ground floor. A charming wooden staircase was erected in the center of the room.

The McCreadys bought their cottage for $130,000. In many ways that was the easy part. The task ahead was to make it home - the Irish home of their Belfast days.

An additional $60,000 went into what Joan McCready refers to as the "fabric of the house." They replaced the furnace, added central air conditioning and the fireplace stove.

The kitchen area was completely remodeled, with white and green tile, new cabinetry, brick flooring and white appliances.

Of particular interest is the recessed kitchen window with cross-lead panes. Filled with plants and crockery on the sill, the view is of a garden trellis at the end of the stone path. All of the home's windows are recessed, each sill brimming with collectibles - "the little treasures gotten over the years," Sam McCready says.

Everything in the cottage has a personal connection for the couple. The pine walls display the work of painter Jack Yeats and other Irish artists, oils of theatrical productions in which Sam McCready was involved, and the photographic works of his son, Richard, including many portraits of their toddler granddaughter, Margaret.

Bookshelves in the tiny study teem with the works of poet William Butler Yeats, older brother of the painter. Many of the windows are dressed to perfection in Joan McCready's handmade crocheted and ribbon work.

Susan Brennan, a sales manager at HarborView Condominiums in Baltimore, is a neighbor. She adores the charm of the McCready home, commenting, "I love the beautiful lace curtains, left open and inviting the neighbors to peek in as they stroll by."

She also applauds the McCreadys' contributions to what she calls "the vibrancy of Dickeyville."

The two have accumulated and stored the town's archives (Sam McCready knows the history of every house, according to Brennan), as well as having set up a Dickeyville Web site. Joan McCready is president of the neighborhood association.

Back in the McCreadys' living room, the fire provides all the warmth needed on this blustery day. When the sky darkens, wrought iron hanging candelabras will be lit. Even the slate floor underneath hooked carpets is toasty.

"This is a house of texture," says Sam McCready, "and it is small enough for us to get to know every piece of it ... like the fireplace ... [there are] faces in the stones."

The retired couple - both in their mid-60s - are taking on projects they choose for themselves. Most are theater-related, which invariably offers the opportunity for return visits to Belfast.

But of their Irish cottage in America, Sam McCready says, "I find the energy of Ireland in this house."

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