Judy Burch and her husband, Dr. Joseph F. Williams, live in the historic Samuel Owings Jr. house in Owings Mills. Okay, it isn't really a historic house. It is a replica of the home once owned by the influential 18th-century resident for whom Owings Mills is named, built to exactly match old photos and descriptions. But for the couple, Samuel Owings's spirit is alive and well.
Samuel Owings Jr., the son of Samuel and Urath Owings, was born in 1733 in the Green Spring Valley. Like his father before him, Owings operated mills and acquired large tracts of land in Baltimore County. The origins of the original Samuel Owings house are a bit foggy; accounts of its construction place the building date between 1765 and 1769. What is known is that Owings and his wife were living in their new home by 1798, a home that had already received several additions to accommodate a growing family. The brick home was a classical example of the Colonial manor style and featured a wide, welcoming front porch. Owings named the house "Ulm," after the sources of his fortune: the Upper, Middle and Lower Mills.
Owings, though not perhaps the most illustrious figure in Baltimore County history, was certainly a mover and shaker in his time. In addition to his large landholdings (as much as 1,775 acres), he was deputy sheriff, a justice of the peace, county commissioner, and a county delegate to the legislature. Owings donated land to St. Thomas Church for the construction of the parsonage. Later in life he became a Methodist and championed various Methodist causes. No doubt, Ulm played host to many important figures in local politics and community life until Owings died in 1803.
After Owings's death, the house stayed with his heirs for a period, went to multiple unrelated owners, then passed to the Painter family, who were stewards of its history for 100 years. Milton Painter excelled as a pioneer of ice cream-making and during the Civil War, soldiers reportedly stopped at the Painter's home to eat some of his confection. When the last of the Painters left the estate in 1943, the house began a slow spiral into disrepair until 1973 when it was refurbished as a restaurant. Baltimore County gourmands may remember the Owings house's stint as "The Country Fare Inn."
The Owings Mills of today bears little resemblance to the town Samuel Owings knew. His landholdings are now covered with highways, a mall, schools, townhomes, and the other trappings of modern suburban sprawl. When developer Howard S. Brown of David S. Brown Enterprises bought the Owings House, it was hemmed in by light industrial buildings and strip malls. In 1996, to the horror of The Committee to Save the Samuel Owings House, Howard bulldozed Ulm, one of the oldest structures in the county. A little piece of local lore seemed lost for good.
Brown promised an outraged community that he would put the Owings House back together at a new location. While he did not use the same materials as the old house (which was reportedly built with bricks made on Owings property), Brown worked with architect Larry Link to build a perfect replica of the Samuel Owings house on a 1.5-acre tract on St. Thomas Lane. Great pains were taken to be faithful to the original design. Exact measurements were taken to make it the correct size, the windows are the exact height and spaced according to Owings's design, and the house features the same huge, welcoming porch and massive custom door that Owings himself could have flung open.
The house was left unfinished on the inside so that Brown could complete the home's interior to the specifications of the new owner. But no owner stepped forward. Wedged onto a piece of property just a stone's throw away from a Wendy's, the location of the house wasn't ideal. But when Burch and Williams saw it on a cold winter day, devoid of any landscaping and wearing its checkered history on its sleeve, they fell in love with the new version of the old Samuel Owings house.
"When we looked in here, both my husband and I said 'Some way, somehow, we're going to live here,'" says Burch. Burch was perhaps fated to become the home's owner, as her furniture and accessories collections are as unique as the house's history. It took two years to complete the construction of the home's interior—because the builders were so particular about quality, Burch says—but when the couple moved in, they brought with them an eclectic selection of art, antiques, furniture, and objects that represent Williams's love of art and Burch's passion for collecting and travel.
Long before she became interested in meditation, Burch shared her grandmother's interest in collecting, and specifically, in the décor of the eastern Orient. Her most impressive collection is of Chinese rose medallion, which is evident in almost every room, in curio cases, and in the form of large vases on stands in rooms. The rose hues of that china inspired the colors of the dining room, a stately room that includes a table and chairs that reportedly came from a Meyerhoff's home. A massive French mirror, hand-carved and still with its original glass now clouding gray, came from an estate sale in Palm Beach. The Baccarat Crystal dolphin that sits on a sideboard below the mirror was purchased on a trip to the French Riviera. Burch carried the fragile cargo home in her carry-on bag. The chandelier is an Italian crystal replica of a 1770's palace chandelier that took a year to complete.
"This home is a great place to display items," she explains. "According to the books, Samuel Owings was a man who liked finer things and he wanted this to be a lovely home. I want this to be a lovely place, too."
Like all great collectors, Burch has perfected the art of trolling estate sales, auctions, and antique shops. The couple purchases items when they are traveling, as well. The house features numerous Chinese and Indian wood carvings that once graced eastern temples, and the living room features an impressive array of century-old Chinese roof tiles, three-dimensional figurines that, for thousands of years, have been placed around the roof soffits of the wealthy.
Burch mixes old and new, French and Chinese, rustic and formal, with abandon. Take, for example, the softly hued gray master bedroom. A massive Indian woodcarving anchors the wall above a fireplace trimmed in tiles salvaged from a Bolton Hill rowhouse. Enormous bedside lamps that are copies of silver candelabras offset an Oscar de la Renta, four-post bed the couple selected for its carving and craftsmanship. The kitchen blends a French Country aesthetic with the distinctly Asian influence introduced by Burch's collection of Blue Canton dinnerware. Burch used a dynamic, Thibaut-designed wallpaper in the French style and the pattern is repeated in a custom-painted table in the breakfast nook. More collections sneak into the breakfast nook, where Burch displays her impressive haul of antique brass kitchen molds, burnished to a cheery sheen.
When asked to describe her home, Burch states with confidence that it is "eclectic."
Not all the home's quirky items were inspired by Burch. Her husband is the art aficionado and his collection includes signed prints by Salvador Dali from his New Jerusalem Suite. A native of Waterbury, Connecticut, a town known for its clockworks, Williams also owns five clocks made in his hometown, including one from the town train station. Despite their collecting prowess, many of the pieces the couple own wouldn't have raised an eyebrow at auction. Burch frequently buys items that are in terrible disrepair and restores them to new luster, breathing new life into something others might consider a lost cause. A bit like she did for the Owings house.
"There are things we've done [in the house] that we've asked ourselves, 'Would Samuel Owings have approved of this?'" she explains. "For both my husband and myself, it's significant to own the Samuel Owings house. We feel like it is a way of keeping his history going."