Written by Cari Pierce
What makes a house a home? In the case of the Westminster residence of Dennis and Dawn Thomas, the base of the formula is friendship – married for 40 years with a commitment to celebrating life with family and friends – mixed with one part folk art museum, a healthy dose of historic building conservationism, and a pinch of White House memorabilia.
As visitors approach along the tree-lined drive, the house seems unassuming and rustic. But the semicircular courtyard extends a spectacular greeting. Paved with cobblestones reclaimed from the streets of Baltimore City, it affords a full view of the home’s 19th Century charms and allows glimpses of the property’s other buildings.
The well-aged stones that form the walls of the first floor of the two story main house and give shape to a chimney on the side are from a New Windsor residence, circa 1750. The style of the home is casual yet elegant country, but its feeling is more “track-a-bit-of-mud-in-andlive- a-little.” The cohesive look of the building’s exterior hides the secret that it was originally a one-room house- the first home of the newly wed Thomases in 1965 – that has been added to many times over the years.
Although the Thomas house has grown from one room to a sprawling country home, its pedigree is genuine. That one room, built around 1955 and now the center of the residence, is an intimate, welcoming sitting area just beyond the foyer. A wing of guest bedrooms and baths is framed within a log cabin farmhouse, circa 1820, that was relocated to the property and added to the house from its original foundation near Routes 26 and 97 in Carroll County.
The farmhouse addition’s downstairs features a dining room that is awe-inspiring in its authenticity and simplicity. An antique farmhouse table fills the room in front of a cozy walk-in, wood-burning fireplace – complete with cookware that, upon occasion, is still used to prepare a meal the “old-fashioned” way.
The recycled building materials and preserved structures on the Thomas property make the home and its extensions a work of art, designed to keep the traditional look of Americana alive. It is, in effect, a beautifully wrapped package that opens to reveal an equally stunning gift: a wealth of American folk art, with an emphasis on American flags.
From antiquing trips – a hobby shared by the couple – through the mid- Atlantic and New England states, the Thomases have brought home furniture, textiles and collectibles. From subtly humorous paintings of American Indian life to the enduring practicality of handmade quilts, the common theme of this art collection lies in an American past that gives the home a warm, welcoming and livable spirit.
American flags grace almost every room of the house and nearly every structure on the property. The Thomases are fascinated with the art of the banners – “the purist form of American folk art,” says Dennis. A few notable flags at the heart of their collection include an 1844 ensign from the Democratic convention – held that year in Baltimore – paving the way for James Polk to become the eleventh President of the United States; a Civil War-era “Bible flag” with a handwritten prayer of safe passage through battle scripted on the cloth, and a “Colorado” flag that dates to August 1, 1876, in commemoration of Colorado’s admission to the Union as the thirty-eighth state.
The Thomases downplay their art collection and say that nothing is really of much value. But certainly, there is value in the fact that they have surrounded themselves with history and beauty – with things they love.
The Westminster property began its tradition in the family more than 70 years ago when Dennis Thomas’ grandparents bought what was then a dairy farm. Over the years, the cows have gone to other pastures, but the land is still farmed for corn, wheat and barley.
More than a dozen renovations and additions have shaped the property during the past 40 years and the Thomases won’t guess how many buildings are on the land today. There is the commanding main house, a unique pool cabana, a sweet playhouse for the grandchildren, an impressive barn and a potting shed, to name a few, but each structure has a rich story, an intriguing past, or an unique tale of how it has come to be part of the Thomas home.
In addition to the historic buildings and materials that define the main home, the Thomas’ pool house combines a log house from Union Bridge, which dates back to the 1750-1780s, with an “open air,” porch-like sitting area, created by another log house that was reassembled without the chinking to allow spring and summer breezes to pass through the walls.
The playhouse precedes Barbie by more than a few decades. The Thomases found the original log cabin – built around 1870 – in the county and reconstructed it in the backyard as a gift to their granddaughter on her second birthday. “We have never found a log cabin we wanted to bring home that we didn’t,” said Dawn.
The newest structure on the property harmonizes with the authenticity of the home, not by its age – it was built in 1997 – but by its architecture and construction. It is a traditional Pennsylvania “bank barn,” and Dennis says that watching it framed and raised onto the property’s sloping hillside by 11 Amish men in just one day was witnessing “a symphony of skill.” Welcoming visitors to the barn through a wall of fieldstones, unearthed from the Thomas property, is an American flag gate, crafted with scrap metal and masonry stars. And with a few deconstructed log cabins in storage, new additions are just a whim away.
The Thomases’ embrace of history and all things American was heightened during the years Dennis worked in Washington, D.C. He served in the Reagan White House as a member of the senior staff to the President from 1983 to 1987. With pride, the Thomases’ memorabilia from the Reagan White House enjoys casual, yet prominent display throughout the home’s den and office. Letters from President Reagan to Dennis, photographs from official state functions and souvenirs from the Oval Office add to the authenticity of the home’s American decor.
Dennis is currently senior vice president of public affairs and communications for International Paper, a global paper manufacturing and distribution company with headquarters in Connecticut. Like Dennis, Dawn is no stranger to community and national service. As the first child in her immediate family to graduate from college, she went on to earn a master’s degree in administration and supervision and a doctorate in educational administration and supervision, with a minor in public relations.
While raising a son and joining Dennis at various White House events, Dawn became a social studies teacher and elementary social studies supervisor, worked in public television, served the Maryland Office of Aging, and became an author of history books about Maryland. She has received numerous awards for her contributions to education. With continued passion for serving others and making connections with people, the Thomases agree, as Dennis says, “that if you believe something can happen, it can happen – the only thing you can control is your attitude.”
In keeping with that philosophy, Dawn describes their home as “an anchor for the family” – playing host to family holiday celebrations for the past 38 years. Friends are invited, any time, and everyone who is welcomed to the property leaves feeling a bit like family. The barn alone has played host to wedding rehearsals, weddings, wedding receptions, both of the couple’s fortieth high school reunions, and year-after-year of Fourth of July celebrations with festive, covered-dish picnics and bluegrass bands.
All those who have helped develop the property, grow the home and raise the barn – and those who have just come to visit over the years – have become an extension of the Thomas family. Dennis and Dawn invited the barn raisers to celebrate their work by signing their names to the building’s massive wooden supports. Guests who climb to the barn’s cupola have the privilege of signing its walls. Wedding guests have signed the barn’s interior.
Friends often stop by unannounced, and that is how the Thomases prefer it. They view their historic, museum-like, cozy home as a gift to share.
“This home is attached to us – it’s an extension of us,” Dennis says, “If a home could have a heartbeat, this is it.”