Rodgers House Restored To 18th-century Appearance

September 15, 1991|By Jodi Bizar | Jodi Bizar,Contributing writer

Ellswood Shank, 64, loves old homes and history. A few years ago, heused that love to restore a dilapidated 200-year-old Havre de Grace home to its former glory.

"It just seemed like the thing I wanted to do was to fix up an old home to appreciate the way they lived," Shank said.

The house Shank fixed up is located at 226 North Washington St. The three-story brick building was the home of one of the town's original residents, Col. John Rodgers, who fought in the Revolutionary War.

After retiring in 1980 from his civil service job at Aberdeen Proving Ground, where he was employed as a mathematical statistician working on weapons development, Shank purchased the Col. Rodgers House.

"It was pretty much neglected as far as the exterior," he said, adding that the original architectural design had been altered.

Thehouse, built in 1787, at one time served as a tavern in which GeorgeWashington once dined.

The building, with its peeling paint and chipping plaster, was first purchased by the Havre de Grace Growth Group -- an organization that buys old buildings and rehabilitates them in an attempt to restore the town's historic appearance.

Shank liked the Col. Rodgers House and purchased it from the group for $20,000.

"I've put many times that (amount) in the restoration," Shank said.

Before he could begin restoring the building to the way it looked in the 18th century, Shank had to research old drawings and documents to find out exactly what it used to look like.

Then he found an old book, "The Pictorial Field Book of the War of 1812," written by Benson J. Lossing and published in 1861. Inside the book, Shank found a sketch of the house.

"I collect old books," said Shank. "But I'm very cheap about it. I pay a quarter or a dollar. I saw this bookand the guy said $50, and I didn't even argue."

"The first recordwe have of it," Shank said, pointing to the book with its yellow andcracking pages, "is when George Washington said he ate dinner here."

Later, when Rodgers died, his son, Commodore John Rodgers, took possession of the house, Shank said.

He said the Rodgers House survived a great fire ignited by the British in 1813 when they tried to gain control of the Chesapeake Bay.

Commodore Rodgers, "didn't livehere much," Shank said, explaining that he lived with his wife at the Zion Hill Estate, which still sits on top of a hill overlooking Havre de Grace.

In the late 1800s, another family bought the buildingand converted the downstairs to a store, leaving the two upper floors as an apartment.

In the 1920s, the first floor was leased out toa drug store, Shank said, and another family bought the building andmoved in.

With all its different owners and occupants, the house underwent several changes. The brick on the main floor was knocked out and two large windows were put in, Shank said.

When he purchasedthe house, Shank said he hired contractors David Malin and Tommy Vincenti to restore the outside back to its original appearance. He saidthey sealed up the windows with brick that closely matched the brickon the upper part of the house.

The brick on the upper level of the house had been painted, but Shank said he is allowing the paint topeel off on its own.

Shank himself took part in the restoration of the inside. He said with the help of his brother in law, R. MadisonMitchel, Jr., county building inspector, he discovered that the original staircase had been ripped out and another one had been put in.

Shank said they removed the new staircase and installed a staircasewhere the original one must have been.

Taking old, "high-quality"yellow pine they found in the attic, Mitchel and Shank replaced the banisters and tried to match the original wood carving on the staircase.

Initially, Shank said he thought there was only one fireplace in the apartment, but later located a second fireplace.

"We didn'tknow we had as many as we had," he said.

Previous occupants also apparently had converted one large room into three rooms.

"We justtook them out," he said.

In most older homes, there are no kitchens or bathrooms, and many modern-day owners simply add them on. But Shank said he didn't want to change the house too much from its original layout.

"We sacrifice," he said, explaining that they just put in one small kitchen on the second floor and one small bathroom on the third floor -- neither of which alters the original floor plan much.

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