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London Town at 50: Vicki & Bernard

In celebration of London Town's 50th anniversary of being open to the public, we're kicking off a monthly series examining the modern history of this colonial site. To start our series, we're looking back at two people who have been long involved with London Town and shaping it into the site it is today.

Vicki Lerch in the William Brown House. Photo by Bob Peterson.

In 2018, Victoria “Vicki” Lerch retired after 35 years of involvement with Historic London Town and Gardens. For the last 16 years of her tenure, she served as the curator of the William Brown House (c.1760). Originally a large brick tavern providing food, drink, and lodging to local residents and travelers, the William Brown House is the crown jewel of London Town’s historic area -- with Vicki at its heart.

Remarkably, she’s been with the William Brown House for a longer period of time than its eponymous creator had lived there. And while William Brown lost his building to bankruptcy in the 1780s, Vicki is heading out on a high note. She just saw through the first phase of a major preservation effort on the National Historic Landmark.

Vicki Lerch in the William Brown House. Photo by Bob Peterson.

Vicki became involved with London Town back in the early 1980s. She saw an ad in the Capital-Gazette seeking new volunteers for the London Town Assembly. At the time, London Town was administered by Anne Arundel County. The Assembly was its friends’ group. Their volunteers supported the site, crafted its interpretation, and worked with the public. In the Assembly, Vicki discovered a group of volunteers incredibly passionate about telling London Town’s story. Vicki worked with early volunteers, including Cathy Pringle, JoAnn Gidos, and the late Ellie Anderson and Lois Brickham, among many more. There were over 35 people who volunteered at London Town on the history side alone. Back then, the William Brown House was the only colonial building onsite. The group dreamed of reconstructing other buildings and adding a modern visitor center. However, they didn’t let limitations hold them back in sharing the site’s special history. The devoted team used a potent combination of spirit and research to find creative ways to bring history to life. “We did everything, created everything,” Vicki says. “We did education and interpretation, took care of the collections, and served as docents.”

Vicki in costume outside of the William Brown House

Vicki and the Assembly were complemented by a team of dedicated volunteers working in the gardens. The garden volunteers were overseen by Tony Dove, London Town’s original horticulturist. Amazingly, Tony and his family lived in the upper level of the William Brown House during the 1980s – even as the Assembly interpreted the lower levels to the public. One can imagine the exciting flurry of activity happening in this historic building!

Vicki describes all the projects they worked on to make the colonial house feel authentic. The team hand-crafted quilts and curtains and found period-appropriate furnishings. They sewed their own costumes and those for visiting children to wear. The Assembly members not only created an education program at London Town for students, but they also invested in their own professional development. They went down to visit Old Salem for a workshop on the domestic arts and brought up milliners from Colonial Williamsburg for a workshop on costuming.

They also started the research library in the upper level of the Brown House. The library ensured that future docents would have access to resources helpful to understanding and sharing the history of the site. It also provided context to London Town’s place in the greater colonial world. Vicki discovered that the story here was “a much broader portion of history than I had expected. Many of the volunteers had a vision for telling a broader interpretation than just your typical historic house museum.”

In the early 1990s, Vicki remained with London Town, even as the site underwent major administrative changes. The site transitioned from being county-run to being operated by a new non-profit, the London Town Foundation. The Assembly was dissolved, becoming integrated into the new organization. However, volunteers remained critical to the site’s success, and many – including Vicki – continued with the Foundation. Their efforts ensured the site remained open to the public.

Within a few years, Vicki moved from serving as a volunteer to being hired as the volunteer coordinator for the newly formed London Town Foundation. She jokes, saying, “I needed a little income for my history habit!”

Vicki with her husband Bernard in the William Brown House

Not that she was the only one in her family who became committed to London Town. Around the same time that Vicki became the volunteer coordinator, her husband J.J. Bernard Lerch, III joined the board of trustees for the London Town Foundation. He served on the board for 6 years, playing a crucial role in the start of many important capital projects across the site. However, his involvement didn’t end when his term did. In fact, he continues to serve as a volunteer even today, working weekly with the gardens and landscape. Every Tuesday, Bernard joins our corps of hardy garden volunteers. He can regularly be seen riding on top of the tractor, taking care of much needed projects across the site.

In 2003, Vicki became the curator of the William Brown House. She’s carefully maintained the collection, including its most important piece – the William Brown House itself. She has worked diligently to fend off damage from light, dust, and debris. All the while, she has given countless tours to the public and added tremendously to our research and knowledge of the building.

During her tenure, a long-held dream of the Assembly’s volunteers became a reality. Vicki and Bernard were instrumental in enabling the first reconstruction onsite – the Lord Mayor’s Tenement. The couple provided critical seed funds for the building’s construction. Their support enabled the Tenement to be built upon the original building’s archaeological footprint and ensured that it constructed as authentically as possible to the time period.

This 17th century style structure provides important context in contrast to the William Brown House. Unlike the grandeur of the Brown House’s Georgian architecture, the Lord Mayor’s Tenement was a smaller and far more common building-type for the Chesapeake region. The 20 x 20’ home is made entirely of wood, highly unlike the Brown House’s all-brick exterior. Having the two architecture types helps better tell the story of the diverse people who lived and worked in London Town.

Not only that, but the Tenement provided a space for hearthfire demonstrations – another long-held dream. The volunteers had demonstrated what they could on campfires, but it wasn’t the same. Now, visitors could see, smell, and sometimes taste the goodies produced on an authentic hearth, offering a fuller understanding of historic foodways.

It is impossible to quantify the impact of Vicki and Bernard’s work at London Town. Their effort is still demonstrated daily while also providing a foundation for years of work to come. Whether its interpreting the site’s history or improving its remarkable landscape, they have provided so much to ensuring the long-term success of London Town. For their dedication and for that of all of the volunteers, we are truly humbled and grateful.

Victoria Lerch William Brown House Collections Fund

In appreciation of Vicki's remarkable service, London Town has created the Victoria Lerch William Brown House Collections Fund. These funds shall be used to care for and add to the material culture collection within the William Brown House. It will pay for acquiring new items, either reproduction or from the time period; curatorial care for the items; and other services related to caring for the collections. Please consider including a contribution in honor of her service. If you would like a contribution to the new Victoria Lerch William Brown House Collections Fund, you can do so here.

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