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For Historic House, an Uncertain Future

Antique quilt dealer Stella Rubin moves on.

As an antique quilt dealers, Stella Rubin spends her days searching out historical treasures. So it’s natural that she’d also live in one.

For 22 years, Rubin has lived in the house on Glen Road in Potomac known as Caleb’s Cottage, once the residence of the Potomac Hunt Club’s head groomsman.

Built in 1925, the house was first home to Caleb, about whom little information is available except that he was probably the son of former slaves and had only one leg. The original home had an outdoor hand pump and pot-belly stoves.

It’s since lived many lives: as home to a family with nine children, to a motorcycle gang, and to Rubin, who will soon move to a larger house on Esworthy Road and turn another page in the house’s history.

The house is for sale at $924,000, and might appeal to a buyer with a sense of history, said Realtor Paul Biciocchi of Forum Properties.

"The property ... has gotten a lot of interest and curiosity," Biciocchi said, because of its "cottage charm look from the outside coupled with the history of the property." He said that he is currently negotiating several bids.

But Biciocchi admits that the 2.4-acre site has also drawn interest as a potential tear-down.

Rubin, for one, would like to see the house remain as it is. A Potomac resident for 33 years, she said she has watched Potomac change from a quiet, horse-country town into a busy suburb.

“It was where people came who lived in Washington and wanted some grass and trees,” Rubin said. “Each field would be fenced and there was a coop and you could just jump over and ride from one field to the next, pretty much indefinitely.”

For Rubin, Caleb’s Cottage is a remnant of that era. She often drove past it when she rented a home on Query Mill Road, and when she was ready to buy a house, Caleb’s Cottage came up for sale.

“Because it was charming and historic and I’m an antiques dealer it was a perfect fit,” Rubin said.

RUBIN CAME to the Washington area as an undergraduate student at George Washington University, and except for a brief stint in graduate school in Philadelphia, has remained ever since.

Raised in New York City and trained in social work, she knew nothing of quilts until she came to Potomac.

“I got to know a neighbor who had a house full of quilts, and I was just completely smitten with them,” she said. “I started buying some for myself. I was just out of graduate school, so didn’t really have any money. I would start having yard sales, selling anything that wasn’t nailed down to have money to buy more quilts. And it’s taken on a life of its own.”

In 1990, she gave up social work and started selling quilts full time. She travels the country buying quilts, though she said the majority come from the mid-Atlantic region, especially Maryland and Pennsylvania. Many of the finest 19th century quilts were made in Amish areas of Pennsylvania and in Baltimore.

Rubin — author of “Treasure or Not? How to Compare and Value American Quilts” — prices her finds and sells them at antiques shows, on her Web site, and out of her home. She is one of a handful of renowned antique quilt dealers.

“In large part, I’ve outlived a lot of the competition,” Rubin said. “If you want an antique quilt, you pretty much have to come to me.”

Rubin has sold a few quilts for more than $100,000 — particularly prized Baltimore album quilts — but most sell for between $500 and $5,000.

With such a variety of patterns, styles, and prices, Rubin said that quilt collecting gives buyers a variety of options in any price range. Since most of her buyers use the quilts as wall hangings — not bed covers — she said they are an economical choice as decorative art.

“When you consider, say, a seven-foot square painting, the cost of a well-done painting compared to a quilt — quilts are really undervalued,” she said.

“Every day is a treasure hunt,” Rubin said. “For me, the selling is just something that I have to do. It’s really the buying that I love.”

LEAVING CALEB’S COTTAGE is bittersweet for Rubin. Her new house on Esworthy will have a full gallery for the quilts and other advantages, but gives up part of the historic charm of her current house.

“People come by who have recollections of it, which I always like,” she said.

But in a Potomac far removed from its hunt country roots, it remains to be seen whether Caleb’s Cottage will remain as it is — a large-scale antique — or be torn down for just another big house.

Robert West — who has known Caleb’s Cottage for more than 50 years as a neighbor and a plumber there — said it may already be too late.

“To look at that house now and to know what it used to look like — it’s not the same at all,” he said. “It’s almost like tearing the house down and building it back up, except they didn’t.”

West, 61, will soon move to rural West Virginia after a lifetime in Potomac and upper Montgomery County.

“I’m getting ready to move out,” he said.

“Potomac is no resemblance to what Potomac used to be. It was a wonderful little country town, but it is not way that anymore."