Candlelight house tour goes behind closed doors

Community: Some of Bel Air's historic homes, buildings and a church will invite visitors to peek inside, while raising money for charity.

November 30, 2003|By Erika Hobbs | Erika Hobbs,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Curious about the Dutch Colonial on Hickory Avenue or the Victorian on Williams Street? Does the brick house on the grounds of the Liriodendron Mansion catch your eye?

Satisfy your curiosity about the stately Bel Air dwellings as some of the picturesque town's most glamorous and historic homes open their doors to the public for the first time for a holiday charity tour Saturday night.

"Every day I walk to school, and I think, `I would love to go in this or that house,' " said Bel Air Elementary School kindergarten teacher Deborah Leaf, the event's organizer. "And one day I thought, maybe I could combine my love of Bel Air with some kind of money-making thing for charity."

With a little sweat this summer, her dream came true.

The Old Neighborhoods of Bel Air Candlelight House Tour, patterned after the popular Havre de Grace and Port Deposit home tours, aims to highlight the county seat's rich history by featuring some of its oldest, richest and most interesting streets, Leaf said.

"People keep buying up old homes and turning them into businesses - or doing nothing at all with them," she said. "We want to show there is so much more than that to Bel Air."

All proceeds will benefit two charities: The National Neurofibromatosis Foundation and the Colleen and Erin Marlatt Scholarship Fund - two causes, both spurred by tragedy, that are close to Leaf's heart.

The $15 ticket will buy a tour of 19 homes, businesses and a church. From mansion to altar, each will be decked out in holiday finery.

The tour, lit by lanterns and candlelight, will begin at the Williams Street Crossing Building, and patrons can meander through town at their own pace. Parking will be provided at four locations throughout town, Leaf said.

A wide range of homes will be featured, including historic residences, prize-winning renovations and "shabby chic" dwellings.

When doctors still made house calls, a Bel Air physician on Hickory Avenue owned one of the town's few examples of a Dutch Colonial home. Built in 1925 by a local architectural firm, the two-story house features a boxwood-covered landscape, a gambrel slate roof and the original knotty pine interior.

The Williams Street Victorian was built by the Reckford family in 1889. The house was restored in the 1970s and refurbished after a Christmas fire in 1999. The L-shaped home with front gable and wraparound porch retains many of its original embellishments and is known locally for its sleeping porch and its French doors.

The brick house on Gordon Street is on grounds that once belonged to one of Bel Air's founding fathers. Built in 1835 by John McKinney, the Georgian-style structure with Greek revival elements later became the manor house of the Liriodendron Mansion. The mansion was the summer home of Dr. Howard Atwood Kelly, who founded the Division of Gynecologic Oncology at the Johns Hopkins University. Nearly all its architectural features are intact, including five bays on the second floor.

Emmanuel Episcopal Church on Main Street, a Gothic-style parish church built from an 1869 stone church, and Natural Gatherings, a florist on Main Street, also will participate in the tour. And Leafs' home on Williams Street will be featured. Crafts by local artisans also will be raffled off.

It was her best friends' loss that, in part, spurred her to create this fund-raising tour, Leaf said.

In September 2001, a tornado that swept through Howard and Prince George's counties carried sisters Colleen and Erin Marlatt's car over University of Maryland dormitories. The car landed in a tree, killing Colleen, 23, and Erin, 20.

They were the daughters of Leaf's longtime best friends, Patricia and Patrick Marlatt of Clarksville.

"We all went to high school together, married our high school sweethearts. It was always the four of us together," said Leaf, a Bel Air native who is married to lawyer Michael Leaf.

Megan, Leaf's 22-year-old daughter, was 3 when she was diagnosed with neurofibromatosis, a tumor-producing genetic disorder that affects the skin, nerves and bones. Megan Leaf, who has survived several surgeries that removed tumors from her brain and right eye, operates the nonprofit Love Box Ltd., which donates care packages to youngsters at Johns Hopkins Children's Center. The Leaf family has long supported the National Neurofibromatosis Foundation.

So last summer, during what normally would be her vacation, Leaf knocked on doors throughout the county seat looking for volunteers.

"People were closing their blinds when they saw me coming," she said.

Finally, she rounded up 17 homes, a business and a church, missing her goal by one home.

"If we got 300 people to come, I thought that would be fabulous," she said. But with the information calls she gets every day, Leaf said she now expects almost 600 visitors will take the tour that night.

The Old Neighborhoods of Bel Air Candlelight House Tour runs from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday. Tickets for the tour can be purchased at Boyd and Fulford Drugs on Main Street, or at the Williams Street Crossing Building on the day of the event. For more information, call Deborah Leaf at 410-879-8643.

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