Chestertown show house takes design ideas from the past and adapts them to the present

May 31, 1992|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Staff Writer

Surely the best houses are like this always: spacious, sensible rooms, beautifully but not outrageously appointed, with tradition upheld but comforts aplenty for every member of the household.

As you gaze around the graceful rooms of River House, or look out across the veranda and the yard to the Chester River just beyond, it's easy to imagine it's always been this way -- for the past 300 years.

Actually, it's been just this way for less than a month, and when another month has passed, it will be something else again. But until June 30, the house, built between 1784 and 1787, is "home" to the public, as the River House Designer Showcase.

Fifteen designer firms from four states and the District of Columbia contributed to the decor of the four-level, five-bay Federal-style house. Their task was made far simpler (or far harder, depending on your point of view) by strict guidelines set out by the Historical Society of Kent County, which sponsored the showcase, and the Maryland Historical Society, which owns the house.

First, designers were "challenged" to keep decor consistent with the historical period of the house, and to incorporate original paint colors in wood trim and paneling. Darlene Housley, of Chestertown, the showcase chairman, emphasizes that the goal was not a "house museum," but an adherence to 18th century design principles "adapted for modern living."

In addition to sticking to the design guidelines, designers were asked to coordinate their plans so the house would appear to be a unified whole, rather than a series of what Ms. Housley called "disconnected spaces."

Second, to give designers a clear image on which to base their unified plans, the show house committee invented an imaginary modern family to "inhabit" the house: a two-career couple with two daughters, 6 months and 10 years old -- and a nanny. Here's what the "Statement of Design Policy" has to say about the family:

"The family recently moved to Chestertown when the wife, a descendant of the original builder of River House, joined the faculty of Washington College. Having spent her childhood summers at River House, she is thrilled to be a professor of music at the college and to occupy River House with her own family.

"Her husband is an internationally recognized economist who travels frequently. . . . They entertain frequently and are involved in the life of the town -- historic preservation, civic organizations and college functions. . . .

"Both husband and wife have inherited family art treasures and they are avid collectors of 18th century and early 19th century antiques to augment their existing collection."

Rising to the challenge

Designers certainly rose to the challenge: The result is a comfortable, livable house that happens to be very beautiful as well.

Among the unifying elements are paint used on the woodwork throughout the house, a subtle grayish-beige color called "putty"; Chinese-influenced elements, from a jar holding plants on the porch to wall paper in the master bath, sets of cloisonne figures on a mantel in the living room and a small chest in the master suite's "withdrawing room"; and Oriental and handmade rugs throughout.

Painted finishes are also used throughout the house. In the drawing room, designed by Lucie Frederick of the Winterthur Design Group, Winterthur, Del., cream walls are stenciled with subtle filigree diamond shapes in pale gold, and a larger version of the same diamond surrounds the base of the room's early 19th century crystal chandelier. This room also includes a walnut harpsichord, for the music professor lady of the house. The piece was borrowed from a local resident, who describes it as a modern interpretation of an 18th century instrument designed to be "used by ladies."

Across the main hall (where two swords and a long black cloak hanging on pegs create an 18th century aura) is the library-reception-dining room, designed by Sarah Boyer Jenkins of Chevy Chase. Here the walls are painted in panels employing Eastern Shore motifs: ships and shells, a blue crab over the door, lilacs and other local flowers, done by Thomas and Elizabeth Warnock of Warnock Studios, Washington. Antiques in this room include a 19th century English Chippendale-style double-chair-backed settee in mahogany. It is "dressed for summer" in a white slipcover.

Behind the library is the stairwell, entered from the main hall through an unusual elliptical arch that is echoed at the second floor as well.

The second floor has been designed as a master suite, with bedroom, bath, dressing room and the "withdrawing room."

The latter is one of the most famous rooms in the house, not for what's in it, but for what's no longer there. In 1926, the owner of the house, experiencing financial difficulties in the wake of a failed peach crop, sold the room's original paneling to Henry Francis du Pont, who installed it in his Delaware mansion, Winterthur.

New mortise and tenon

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