At first glance, the two houses would seem about as dissimilar as they could possibly be. One is a wide, square, Federal-style manse with a grand entry and a wraparound porch in a small town surrounded by farm country. The other is a looming four-story Queen Anne row house in a city neighborhood creeping towards revitalization.
The circa-1847 country house is filled with tradition: gilt-framed oil paintings and handed-down china cabinets, wallpaper with scrolls and fleur de lis, leather ottomans, and hand-knotted carpets. The city house is crammed with curiosities: wood-carved Haitian voodoo dolls, 1950s toys, collages made from tin cans and bottle caps, oil paintings by self-taught artists, a pair of stadium seats with bright images of Jackie and John F. Kennedy.
The owners likewise seem polar opposites: In the country house lives an empty-nest couple who attended Milford Mills High School together, then married and raised two children, a pair who've demonstrated a flair for restoration and decorating; in the city house, there's a Chicago transplant who has thrown himself into Baltimore's quirky local art scene.
But on closer observation, similarities emerge. Here are two houses that, when decorated for the holidays, speak volumes about the owners' personalities and their passion for collecting—not to mention the joy they derive from inviting friends and family into their homes.
Ron and Debbie Schmidt bought their house in Westminster in 2004, and to say they put a lot into it is an understatement. "We did everything," says Ron, raising his eyes toward the restored molding around the ceiling. "We did the floors, the walls, all the plumbing, heating, lights." Schmidt, who owns R.M. Schmidt, a Westminster-based heating and air conditioning firm, says the house was once used as an infirmary during the Civil War, and later a boardinghouse for visiting professors at nearby McDaniel College.
Debbie works for The Kellogg Collection, and the English country sensibilities of the home furnishings and design company seem to have rubbed off. But rather than reproductions, the Schmidts favor real antiques, and their décor is an aggregate of valuable hand-me-downs from two families combined with the fruit of the couple's antique-hunting. In the living room, with its comfortable nubby green and gold upholstered couches, an antique French mahogany curio cabinet contains a collection of china cups and teapots from Debbie's family. Dominating one wall is a large oil painting of a three-masted sailing ship, which came from a Monkton estate sale. Debbie credits her old friend, Kay Ayres, who owns an interior design company in Ocean City, with much of the decorating.
When they dress up their home for the holidays, the Schmidts follow their established predilections, combining family heirlooms with traditional greens, garlands, and candles, peppered with some personal collections, like Debbie's snow globes, which she began collecting when her children were small. In the dining room, a small artificial tree displays sterling silver baby cups and napkin rings, many monogrammed, from both Debbie's and Ron's families.
For the Schmidts, decorating their home is all about family. The heirloom ornaments, says Debbie, "establish a tradition of talking about Christmases past." The holidays, she adds, "are a good time to stop and reminisce about the past and think ahead to the future."
Ted Frankel moved to Baltimore in 2004 to expand and operate Sideshow, the gift shop at the American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM). The house, which he purchased from Jubilee Baltimore, the not-for-profit charged with helping to rejuvenate Baltimore neighborhoods, had been cut up into nine apartments, with nine kitchens and nine bathrooms. "One of the requirements was bringing it back to a single-family home," says Frankel, who describes it as "a house with good underwear."
Frankel lives in the house alone, but it is far from empty. He and his partner, Bill Gilmore, executive director of Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts, attend gallery openings, MICA student shows, yard sales, and flea markets, picking up unusual and sometimes prosaic objects that all seem at home in these fun-filled rooms. The two travel the world—to India, Haiti, and Mexico City—in search of treasures. Recent acquisitions: 10-foot painted canvases from India's Bollywood promoting American movies, including Sneakers with Robert Redford; a stack of original paintings used as cover art for detective novels from a street vendor in Mexico; the innards of a piano that Frankel found in the alley: "I thought it was beautiful. It will make a great sculpture. It is a sculpture."
The house is so filled with decorative and playful objects that it's hard to tell where the holiday decorating begins. Thirty-foot strings of bows made from Nepalese candy wrappers cascade through the stairwell. But they're part of Frankel's everyday décor.
A few years back, Frankel's house was part of the Friends of Mt. Vernon Holly Tour, and he noticed that after walking through the rooms, upstairs and down, participants would plop down on the couches in the living room to talk about what they'd seen. "That, to me, is the definition of a welcoming home," he says. "Where people can walk through a stranger's house and then feel comfortable sitting around talking about it."
For the past few years, Frankel has decorated in time for a holiday party, which has grown to an open house with about 200 in attendance. Last year, he and Gilmore discouraged gifts, instead asking guests to bring art supplies—new or gently used. After the party, he delivered a van load to the organization Art with a Heart. This year, the couple is asking for children's books to donate to Baltimore Reads. The plan will likely be a relief to many of Frankel's guests: It would be quite a challenge to find a gift quirky enough to stand out in this place.