Home & Living

Essay: Owning a Century-Old Home Means Being a Steward of Its Story

Angela Sciarretta Benam shares the heartwarming history behind her Lake Walker home.

I’ve always loved things with a past. I have a small shelf my father made in his high-school shop class that is on my “what to grab if the house in on fire” list, and every time I use my jar opener, I think of how my grandmother’s hands held the same one to pry open those tough lids. I have an old cast-iron pan that my Italian great-grandmother would use to fry her meatballs and pepperoni for the family sauce recipe, and I wouldn’t dream of using any other pan when doing the same.

I like that each of these items has a story and has been loved before. So, it was a given that from the day we bought our almost-100-year-old house in 2005 in the Lake Walker neighborhood, I would adore it. It’s small and constantly in need of an update or repair, but it sits in a neighborhood filled with kind, creative, interesting people, and it oozes charm that always feels cozy and welcoming.

When my mother made her very first visit to 717 Hollen Road she was delighted to discover we lived just a few houses down from where her father, Herman Einolf, grew up. I knew that my maternal grandfather’s family had lived in the area, but family stories were always about Cedarcroft, which is the neighborhood on the other side of York Road, so I had always assumed that’s where they lived. (Most old-timers still call my side of York Road Cedarcroft or Upper Govans.)

She then recounted how she would walk from her grandparents’ house on Hollen Road to York Road to catch the No. 8 streetcar to go shopping downtown, always a special treat because her father was the driver. Naturally nostalgic, I imagined that the Einolfs might have known and been friends with the people who once lived in my house. And even contemplating such a shared history with my ancestors and the people who previously lived in my home made me love it even more.

A few years after we bought our house, I spotted an older man walking down our street. I was busy gardening out front and a little grumpy that day, so I tried to avoid eye contact. Luckily, he disregarded my body language and walked with determination straight for me. He told me his name was Billy Storck and that his daughter often dropped him off in the neighborhood for a walk.

His childhood home was just a few houses away and he liked to reminisce about his younger years. I asked if he knew my grandfather, Herman. He looked like his heart exploded with joy as he poured out story after story of playing with my grandfather’s youngest brother, Henry, and the boy who lived in my house. They would make plans to sneak out of their houses at night to meet, sit on their roof to be sure their homes were safe from air attacks during World War II, and played baseball at our intersection—my house was always home base.

After his visit, I was full of joy thinking that my grandfather might have played on my own front lawn. My sons—Noah, 19, and Benji, 17—have played baseball at the same intersection with their neighborhood best friend, Leo, and my yard is still home base. My house felt even more loved and meaningful to me.

Fast-forward to Christmas Eve 2010. I was home with my sons and husband, John, when we heard footsteps on our porch. We weren’t expecting anyone, so we were curious and maybe a little suspicious when we peeked outside and saw a large, wrapped gift leaning against the porch. We could tell it was a framed picture of some sort.

We brought it inside and opened the card, whose message was just as mysterious as the gift-giver. It simply read, “So many happy memories . . .” There was no signature, but included inside the card was a very old photo of a young boy in front of our house. We unwrapped the gift, which was a framed sketch of our home. I imagined it must have belonged to the boy in the photo—who would now be an old man—who also loved our house so much he had commissioned a sketch.

Denny Brooks, who grew up at 717 Hollen Road, standing in front of his home in 1940.
Brooks sitting in front of the same house, now owned by Benam and her family, from a visit in 2021.

I wished for years that I could thank the person, who was not only thoughtful enough to wrap and deliver the picture, but also thought that the house’s new family—us—might enjoy it. I dreamt of telling him how much I treasured the gift and that I hung it up immediately. I wanted to ask him if he knew my grandfather or Billy Storck. Did he play baseball at the intersection, too?  

A decade passed. The world changed. And then finally lockdowns from the pandemic started to ease. I was working from home and just happened to take a lunch break at the same time a group of four people were walking up the street. They weren’t the usual walkers I see in our neighborhood, and the three younger ones looked like they were recording the older gentleman. I was hoping that this was yet another clue to my house and so I decided to go check the mail—a perfect excuse to go outside for a chance encounter.

Sure enough, they enthusiastically called out to me as soon as I stepped outside, “Our father lived in your house!” Their father, Denny Brooks, was the older gentleman in the group. And it turned out Mr. Brooks was the mystery gift-giver.

I immediately told him how meaningful the gift was to me, and I invited them in to see it hanging on the wall. Mr. Brooks shared many stories, including one about how he almost burned down the house as a child. He loved that the tin ceiling was still in place, that the stairwell looked the same, and he marveled that the floors were in decent shape after so many different feet walked across them over the last 100 years.

While he remembered my grandfather, Herman, he was closer to his youngest brother, Henry. He said the three of them—Henry, Billy, and himself—would play baseball, and he smiled when I shared that my sons also played baseball at the same intersection. He smiled even wider when I told him that I met his old neighbor Billy Storck.

Henry Einolf, the younger brother of Benam’s grandfather Herman, in front of 708 Hollen Street in 1929. Einolf and Brooks played baseball in the front yard of what is now Benam’s house.
Author Angela Sciarretta Benam holds a sketch of her home that was left on her porch one Christmas Eve with an unsigned note that read, “So many happy memories.” . . .”

Mr. Brooks was also thrilled to hear that my youngest son is attending his alma mater, Baltimore City College, and he properly scowled when he found out my other son attends Baltimore Polytechnic Institute (any Baltimorean would understand this reaction). He graduated from City in 1953, 70 years before my son will graduate from the same high school. Knowing the love Mr. Brooks had for his childhood home, his nephew sketched the house. He said it hung over his fireplace for years before he decided that it belonged to the house. So that Christmas Eve, he wrapped it up and dropped it on our porch on his way to mass, hoping that it would be just as special to us as it was to him. 

Every December 24, I’m reminded of this story. The stories from my mother, Mr. Storck, and Mr. Brooks replace all those home ownership aches—leaky roofs, rusty pipes, and the rest—with the warmth of belonging to something bigger than us, beyond the time frame we are here. We are all just stewards of the history this house holds.