Stemmer House: Secret Garden and Storied Past

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Can a house make you strive to be your “best self” (thanks for that parting gift Oprah)? Well, if ever there was a possibility, “Stemmer House,” an estate selling in Owings Mills, might just be that place. It is in equal parts aspiration and inspiration. It will take an uncommon breed to continue its captivating history.

 

Okay, first aspiration: The estate includes 27 acres, private guest house, too many gardens to count, two barns, stables, fenced pasture, pool, pond with gazebo, pair of swans and their new cygnets, five peacocks, and a partridge in a pear tree. Check out the listing here, not exactly, “You can do it, Home Depot can help!” The beautiful main house was built on Philadelphia Road in 1781 by Ulrich Stemmer and moved (always a wonder) to its current location in 1930. Local legend holds that Ulrich was a pirate and his wife haunts the house, embittered by the discovery of a second family in the West Indies. At least she has a lovely backdrop for her eternal melodrama. 

The inspiration comes from the extraordinary woman, Barbara Holdridge, who has owned Stemmer House since 1973. Barbara has that certain “NPR story” aura that I always associate with an accomplished, intellectual, arts-based life. She is someone whom you admire and for good reason. At the ripe old age of 22, Barbara and a college friend, Marianne Roney, pioneered the audio book industry. They started Caedmon Records founded on their new idea of recording authors reading their own work. The gals had some luck when they convinced the often drunk poet Dylan Thomas to do the first recording. The fifties weren’t a great time for a pair of young girls to start a business (this was pre-Mad Men for Lord sake!) — there were rejections at the hands of bankers and landlords alike. Barbara and Co. persevered, driven by “recreating the moment of inspiration,” as they called it. In the end, success was granted and Caedmon was sold in 1972 with recordings by the likes of Tennessee Williams, Ogden Nash, E. E. Cummings, T. S. Eliot and William Faulkner, to name a few giants. (Hemingway declined to record for fear that his voice was too high.) During these years, Holdridge became a wife to Lawrence, an equally accomplished, self-taught engineer (how do you do that exactly?) and a mother to twin girls. Barbara’s Chapter 2 used the newly purchased Stemmer House as a canvas for her great passions. Her signature drive was alive and well. The house has been beautifully restored in pain-staking period detail (at a cost of about a $1,000,000, Holdridge estimates). The large front hall is particularly striking, as is the library, which should surprise no one. In pursuing a love of American folk art, she amassed a collection that has traveled to several leading museums and is credited for discovering the noted artist, Ammi Phillips. Barbara’s award-winning gardens at Stemmer House are extensive and magnificent (check out below in our video landing). They have been featured in garden tours and several books. A well-lived life indeed.

In all the many articles about Stemmer House there is no “Lady of the Manor” slant, praising Holdridge’s beautiful clothes or fabulous parties (although I am sure she could have had both). Perhaps it is because there is just so much more to talk about. Barbara Holdridge is a woman of substance and that is perfectly reflected in her much-loved home. Now 80, Mrs. Holdridge has decided to sell, “too many steps,” she says. I hope whoever buys “Stemmer House” accepts that it may be haunted by two ghosts; one an angry wife and one an accomplished woman who inspires them to be more.



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