Memory Lane Residents' Good Old Days Are Now

Dream Home

Eastern Shore Victorian Is Historic, Dignified

April 27, 1997|By Gary L. Hornbacher | Gary L. Hornbacher,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Maybe it was the day, maybe it was the pair of towering European purple beech trees whose fall leaves were turning from purple to bronze and gold, or maybe it was simply because Greg Nizza and Mary Ellen Black, his girlfriend, could look beyond the dead trees and fallen limbs that littered the lawn and view the stately Victorian home as it must have looked 140 years ago. Whatever the reason, it was a case of love at first sight.

It was 1993 and the Lanham couple knew what they wanted -- an affordable Victorian home with character that they could buy as an investment and use as a summer home. Open space and a home with grounds big enough to lose that fenced-in feeling. Something with a little history attached to it.

"It was exactly what we were looking for," Greg said. "The setting was absolutely beautiful and the house was so much more than the Realtor's fuzzy picture showed -- for a moment we thought it was the wrong home."

Looking at their Eastern Shore home today, one understands why the couple feel that they have found their dream home.

Memory Lane -- yes, the home has a name and a rich heritage to match -- is a two-story Italianate Victorian home on five acres about a quarter-mile from the Choptank River in the historic village of Williston.

The home's size, slightly more than 3,000 square feet, is not overly large by Victorian standards but a large open porch that wraps around three sides of the home, wide eaves and an ornate octagonal cupola give it an imposing presence.

Adding to the dignity of the home is its beautiful setting.

In addition to the towering European purple beech trees that shade the southwest corner of the house, two equally large American beech trees are linked by a big iron chain in front of the house. Other huge trees include boxwoods and a massive big tooth aspen. Tree experts say the beech trees and a huge white dogwood are approaching state championship status. and the big tooth aspen has been confirmed as a national champion -- the largest tree of its species in the United States.

"We've been told many of the trees are over 200 years old," said Greg. He said the open space and beautiful framing provided by the trees immediately attracted him to the home. "Legend has it that troops tethered their horses to the big iron chain when they trained during the Civil War."

As one draws closer to the home, some of the touches that characterize the Victorian style become more apparent. Ornate brackets support the wide-hanging eaves, porch posts sport elaborate moldings and even the ceiling of the wraparound porch is plastered.

The front door opens to a spacious foyer, glimpses of a living room to the right and a parlor to the left and a center staircase.

The home also contains a large eat-in kitchen, a family room, five bedrooms, 2 1/2 baths and five fireplaces. The cupola, which served as an enclosed widow's walk and offered a view of the Choptank before trees obscured it, is also accessible from inside the house. All of the walls, of course, are solid plaster, and throughout the house there are many ornate Victorian touches.

Greg and Mary Ellen have discovered their home has a rich background, historically and architecturally. Nestled in an area of Williston that contains an old mill, a restored mill house and mill lake, a country store and an old hotel, the home was built by A. J. Willis, a shipping magnate who ran the port of Williston, as a wedding gift for his daughter, Mary Virginia.

The home, incidentally, is just a short walk away from Potter Hall, a Colonial brick manor built in 1740 that Willis occupied at the time he built Memory Lane for his daughter.

Decades later, Memory Lane was purchased by a somewhat eccentric Eastern Shore resident and -- prior to Greg and Mary Ellen's acquisition -- had been owned by a wealthy Eastern Shore resident who used the home as a summer residence for several decades and then rented it until the couple bought the home from his estate in early 1994.

The home is considered the best example of the Italianate (a sub-period that draws heavily from the influences of 16th and 17th century Italian villas) Victorian style in Caroline County and one of the best examples of its kind on the Eastern Shore. Shortly, the couple hope, the home will be added to the National Historic Register.

Today, much has happened since that fall afternoon when Greg and Mary Ellen first saw their dream home. Dark window treatments have been removed to open and brighten rooms; ugly blotches of peeling paint have been scraped and the areas repainted. The refinished pine flooring throughout the house softens and lightens the rooms, where tasteful throw rugs, antiques and pieces of carefully selected bric-a-brac contribute to an inviting and relaxing home environment.

There is much to do as the two are slowly and lovingly unpeeling the home, renovating it with an ultimate goal of restoring it to its original state.

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