Chestertown's a charmer with a colorful past

September 12, 1993|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Staff Writer

Before you consider joining the 24th annual Candlelight Walking Tour of historic properties in Chestertown on Saturday, there's something you should know: The residents of this charming small city on Maryland's Eastern Shore absolutely love the place.

"The most wonderful place on earth" is Jo Scheffenacker's assessment. She and her husband, David, whose 1770 house on Water Street is on the tour, have been coming to the area for years; for a while they rented a place in the country. "But we like living in town," she says. "It's really neat."

Charming towns aren't rare on the Eastern Shore, but Chestertown seems to have collected at least its share of amenities: It's on the scenic Chester River, it has a compact and extraordinarily well-preserved historic district, it has a central square surrounded by shops, restaurants and public buildings, and it has a college, Washington College, that contributes some cultural advantages and guarantees a youthful contingent in the population.

And it has a past. Chestertown is more than 280 years old; the county in which it lies, Kent, was founded in 1642. Chestertown was established as a port in 1707; it was once the busiest port on the Eastern Shore. And it has been home to sea captains and captains of commerce and industry, "town" home to plantation owners and gentleman farmers. The college, founded in 1782, was named after George Washington, who was on its first board of governors.

Of the 16 properties on this year's Candlelight Tour, eight date to the 18th century, four to the 19th and four are from the early years of the 20th.

Mr. and Mrs. Scheffenacker's house, a graceful brick "town" house, is known as the Frisby House. Like many of the historic properties, it has had its years of prosperity and years of neglect, and now stands as a glowing testament to the value of sensitive preservation.

The Scheffenackers modernized the back of the house, turning a series of small spaces into a kitchen, laundry room and sitting room. The sitting room, once a cramped space with a window, was turned into a well-proportioned rectangle that opens out on the wide back lawn. They also installed a new heating system and redecorated the upstairs. "We painted and papered from top to bottom," Mrs. Scheffenacker says. Shades of blue, yellow and creamy white predominate; the vibrant Chinese red dining room is an exception.

The Scheffenackers are avid collectors of antiques, and the house's furnishings reflect a comfortable mix of family pieces and the mostly Baltimore and Maryland pieces they have gathered over the years.

One of their favorites spaces -- "This is why we bought the house," Mrs. Scheffenacker jokes -- is the large screened side porch. Here the family -- the Scheffenackers have three grown children -- can relax in the white wicker settees and armchairs and watch boats go by on the Chester River through a gap between houses on the water side of the street.

On Queen Street, almost directly behind the Scheffenackers' Frisby House, is another tour property, the Nicholson House, named after John Nicholson, a captain in the Continental Navy. The house, which dates to 1788, is home to Shirley and Daniel Hunt, who continue its nautical tradition; he retired as a captain after 24 years in the U.S. Navy before going on to a career in ocean research.

The Hunts made numerous changes in the house before they moved in last October. "We worked on it for over a year," says Mrs. Hunt, whose career as an antiques dealer in Baltimore is reflected in furnishings and artifacts throughout the house.

The original part of the house is just two rooms deep. A two-story addition, built in the 1890s, houses the kitchen and dining room, with a guest room on the second floor.

Much of the work on the house was restoration. The wide-board wood floors were refinished, molding was stripped and repainted, plaster repaired. "In some places we took the plaster down to the lath -- we could see the hand-made lath underneath," Mrs. Hunt recalls.

The front parlor, with its elaborate mantel and molding, must look again much as it did in Captain Nicholson's day. In the back parlor, floor-to-ceiling bookcases, some lined in gold leaf, house both books and pieces of Chinese porcelain that Mrs. Hunt specialized in at her shop. Above the fireplace is a striking contemporary Madonna and child painting by Czech-born artist Nadeza Prvulovic. Mrs. Hunt created the stone-like faux finish on the fireplace surround.

Many of the pieces of furniture in the house were made for Mrs. Hunt by S. Brook Moore, of Sandy Spring, in Montgomery County. Among them is a console-type table in the hallway, which is an exact copy of an altar table from the Ming Dynasty (16th century).

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