Age and unusual architecture make show house special


June 09, 1991|By Carleton Jones

OXFORD — Old mansions on river fronts and tidal streams are nothing new in quaint (and rich) Talbot county. But the Combsberry estate is something special

Age is one reason. It's about 273 by the best estimates and features an ancient, 1730 pile from the days of the Georgian kings, when Marylanders hadn't outnumbered the original Indian population for too long.

Combsberry, along its 46-foot river front, also has mysterious, paneled and recessed windows with glazed brick headers, windows of vague Palladian form, rare in early Colonial architecture (but not on English buildings of the same era, say architectural historians).

Those are two reasons why this grand old country house near Oxford has been opened as the first decorator show house to be staged on Maryland's Eastern Shore, sponsored by the Historical Society of Talbot County.

John Oldham, an Oxford blacksmith and storekeeper who did a little milling on the side and got wealthy, bought Combsberry's beautiful, flat land overlooking Island Creek in 1717, and his son, Edward, built the central block of the mansion in 1730, say show sponsors. Like the majority of important early Colonial buildings in the state, it was built in stages, a central block, almost inevitably followed by additions, wings and L's, plus, in the case of Combsberry, a traditional "stair tower" seen on other treasured St. Mary's and Annapolis buildings of the early period. In Combsberry's case, the tower houses a reverse staircase leading up to an authentic arched ceiling, recently restored for the show house debut.

Combsberry remained substantially as built until 1877 when an east (kitchen) wing was added, to be followed by a western addition tacked on in the 1920s, today housing the decorating tour's lavish library area and an adjoining atrium.

Whever possible, says design director Gerard Ebert, original finishes and features of the building were retained. Michael Trostel, noted Maryland specialist on historic restoration property, advised show sponsors on treatments of original features and finishes of the mansion.

As a sample, the home's original paneling (moved from the central block to the west wing about a half century ago), has been restored to an original Colonial-style painting finish, after removal of previous coats of paint. Original features, like the footings of the house's first stairway before the stair tower was added about 1750, have been left in place as historically significant.

The resulting building (now on the market for $2,850,000, land included), maintains a domestic air despite the fact that for at least part of its career Combsberry served as a country courthouse, with office space for a long-ago county magistrate and a basement holding tank for prisoners.

The 18 designers involved in the show house were selected competitively based on color boards submitted. Results range from art moderne- and deco-inspired furnishings back into formal, Early American fittings as well as baroque and palatial elegances of European inspiration.

Choosing the winning designers for the show was "a daunting task," according to Aileen Arader, the project's coordinator, who worked closely with Mr. Ebert, a Baltimore designer and state president of the American Society of Interior Designers.

Among the more original approaches in the design spaces is the dining room layout by G. Lawreck Interiors Ltd. of Annapolis. It creates a sort of progressive layout for a dinner party, with three separate table settings for each of three dinner courses, with silver, glassware and china to match.

Major first-floor rooms maintain a historic air, including JI Incorporated's drawing room area of directoire or Napoleonic effect, designed to match Combsberry's curious window frames, topped with unusual shallow arches. The Washington-based design team for the area includes Magenta Yglesias, Clark Hollis Blouir and Robert Leland Froman Jr.

The enormous, all-white mansion kitchen, decorated by Dale Johnson and Holly Rhodes of Chestertown, has a virtually 180-degree view of the estate's waterfront and has been intriguingly brought to life with colorful accents and lighthearted objects, a radiantly livable space more a "live-in" than an "eat-in" environment.

Other home highlights show off the ability to adapt small, narrow corridor space as a potting room or kitchen entry (by Kensington's Laura Chandler); the structuring of a unique stairway by Baltimore's Barbara Halsted; and the attic rooms, which demonstrate exceptional ability in adapting furniture scales to small and simple areas.

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