Man's castle doubles as bed and breakfast Havre de Grace home was built by a cousin of Johns Hopkins

Dream Home

January 18, 1998|By Bob Graham | Bob Graham,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Ronald Browning knows exactly why at a 1994 auction he and his business partner were able to buy a home once owned by a descendant of one of Baltimore's most prominent families.

"The only way to explain it is that we were lucky," said Browning, a social studies teacher at Chesapeake High School and a part owner of Eclections, an antique shop in Havre de Grace, the waterfront community of about 11,000 people on the Susquehanna River in eastern Harford County.

Browning now lives in the Hopkins House, a three-story home built in 1868 by Henry Harrison Hopkins, a pharmacist and cousin of Johns Hopkins.

Originally interested only in the auction of the home's contents, Browning and his partner, William B. Kirkpatrick, had an inkling that the house would also be auctioned, even though they had been told otherwise.

At the last minute, the auctioneer added the house and they quickly secured a $10,000 deposit from Browning's father, who later provided another $10,000 to help restore the house. The inclusion of the house in the auction caught other bidders by surprise and, consequently, Browning was the lone bidder.

He recalled with a smile how the auctioneer started bidding at $250,000, with no response. Then $225,000. Then $200,000. Still no takers.

"No one else was prepared to bid and the price kept going down," Browning said. "When it got to $150,000, they had a discussion to see if they could take that low a bid. We asked if that was the lowest they would go, they said yes and we bid. And we got it."

To make the financing work, Browning and the bank agreed to make part of the house a bed-and-breakfast, called La Cle D'or Guest House, featuring three rooms, the Rochambeau Room, the Lafayette Room and the La Pew Room.

He rents mostly on weekends several times a month. But most of the time Browning lives alone, except for Gracie, his rescued greyhound.

The house retains its original roof, made of Peach Bottom, Pa., slate, one of the most expensive then and now. Numerous dormers, window treatments and corbels catch the eye. And there is an L-shaped garden in the back yard, with a hot tub, that invites one to spend time looking over the house from the outside.

Bright surprise

The inside was another story. The house had been used by its previous owner almost exclusively for Christmas and Fourth of July parties, but was unoccupied before the auction.

The result was drooping wallpaper, heavily damaged wood floors and a myriad of other problems that needed immediate attention. Restoration cost about $50,000, spread over the last three years, Browning estimates.

Inside the house, there was one bright spot -- well, actually, 13 of them. When Browning and Kirkpatrick entered the house for the first time after buying it, they found that 13 ornate Strauss chandeliers remained. Fearing that someone had failed to take them after buying them at the auction, they called the bank. They were told that wasn't the case and they could keep them, since the house now was theirs.

"We could never have afforded the chandeliers, especially Strauss. It would have cost us thousands of dollars we didn't have," said Browning, who sold his house in Aberdeen for cash to purchase the Hopkins House.

Since winter 1994 Browning, using Kirkpatrick's eye for interior design and wallpapering featuring Ronald Redding designs, has worked to create a unique home relying on the things he knows: American history from his teaching and antiques from his side business.

Browning estimates that he has spent $20,000 to $25,000 on these furnishings. The house's furnishings are mostly from the post-Civil War period, with some items from the Empire period of the mid-19th century.

"It's about the time the house was built so it seems logical to go with that period," Browning said.

"But it's not an exact replica of that era because I didn't want it to be so authentic that I couldn't use the colors I wanted."

The formal dining room is an example of the style and appearance Browning has tried to create. The room has eggplant-colored wallpaper, a Chinese sculptured wool rug and several mahogany pieces.

Among them are a Hepplewhite buffet circa 1940; a Sheraton table and a reproduction of a Chippendale chair; an oval library table and a rectangular walnut table, both of the Empire period; and a 1840s sofa restored to include a goose down cushion in a Robert Allen fabric. There is also a mahogany settee.

The parlor might be one of the most fetching rooms.

A domed recess and pastel stained-glass door transoms typify the unique style of housing design and construction after the Civil War. Gold wallpaper, remaining from the building's past, highlights the room, which has a gas fireplace, one of three in the house. An Orleans black border was added to the upper walls by Browning to tone down the bright gold.

There is a double armoire wardrobe from Delaware, a dark oak buffet and walnut Empire armchairs, upholstered in a Napoleonic bee pattern.

Musical mystery

A framed print of the Alcazar of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand in Segovia, Spain, was purchased at a Cecil County estate sale because Browning had walked around the Alcazar while visiting Segovia.

Possibly the most curious of the pieces in the house is the mahogany music stand in the parlor. Browning's maternal grandmother bought it. On its doors, painted in black and burnt orange and yellows, is what Browning believes is the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904. Made in 1912 by a Baltimore furniture company, Levinson & Klein, Browning thinks it might be a commemorative piece.

"People at first think it's a sunset, maybe in Japan, but the people that know Baltimore see it as the fire," Browning notes, adding, "But there's really no way to know for sure."

Browning continues to check auctions and estate sales for pieces that he might buy for the house, but only if they fit a need. "If I see something that would add something to the place, I do it," Browning said.

Pub Date: 1/18/98

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