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Where money lives quietly Privacy: It's one of the Eastern Shore's best-kept secrets, an opulent society that rivals the Hamptons and Palm Beach.

The Shore's Hidden Society

November 08, 1998|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

For the past 70 years, it has been the financial titans of Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and New York who have bought and built here, drawn by the genteel sporting life.

Uneasy Change

But an uneasy change has come in recent years: Washington lobbyists and government figures whose names occasionally make it into the news have moved in, often on a weekend-only basis.

Nowadays, mossy old fortunes rub elbows with the sometimes strident and impatient money of the 1990s.

In this rarefied world, how old your estate is determines your social status almost as much as how old your money is.

Talbot County's old guard (many are avid gardeners and conservationists) cringe as buyers intent on instant housing gratification tear down hundred-year-old frame houses and farmsteads and throw up expansive new homes.

"Tearing down a house is common," says Daniel R. Cowee, Talbot County's planning officer. "Sometimes the old places have termite damage or they are full of rot, but a lot of times the new owners just don't like the floor plan."

Despite the frictions, perhaps the haute monde of the Eastern Shore have more in common than they have differences. A love of privacy, for instance.

"I've heard it said down here the one with the longest driveway wins," says Hoppy Stafford, a Christie's Great Estates real estate broker in Easton.

"Neighbor is not a word in my vocabulary," says Peter B. Stifel, owner of a 280-acre estate on pristine Woodland Creek. Like so )) many of its counterparts, Hope House is visible only from the water, mainly in winter.

Many owners slip into their estates almost unnoticed. One Baltimore bank executive arrives by a Cessna plane outfitted with pontoons. First Mariner President Edwin F. Hale Sr. commutes from his pier on Baltimore's waterfront in the Canton neighborhood, across the Chesapeake Bay to his 186-acre place in Talbot. "It takes 15 or 20 minutes by plane," Hale says.

The estate owners move about in Easton and surroundings easily and unnoticed.

The collective desire for privacy and quiet means Talbot County has avoided the usual invasion of hotels and motels, and has never developed much of a night life. Entertaining, for the most part, remains in private homes.

Like the estates where they are staged, the best of these galas are much discussed in local social circles.

"People talk and they have ears -- all of sudden, the word gets out that someone new has moved here," says Easton interior designer Robert Esterson. "Soon an invitation appears. It may start with some drinks or a dinner, then go on to an invitation to a big party, with a tent and Peter Duchin's orchestra. Those invitations to the big houses are very important here."

Burda, the German publishing magnate, throws some of the biggest of these dinners. Many Eastern Shore dinner parties are far more casual. These are not. His guests typically arrive by jet and stay for a very cosseted weekend. The pilots, by the way, prefer to stay across the bay in Annapolis, where the night life is bouncier.

Burda's estate, Fairview, contains at least four residences, including his own sparkling-white mansion that looks across the Miles River toward St. Michaels. Look the other way and you can see the Kent Narrows Bridge and, on very clear days, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. Fairview is assessed at $5.1 million, the highest property tax assessment in Talbot County.

Burda is locally renowned for the table he sets with the help of a phalanx of cooks, maids, servers and gardeners. When he travels, he takes his chef.

For his famed dinners, each place is set with four wine glasses and a party favor. Should a guest cancel at the last minute, a substitute of the proper gender is at the ready.

Caviar spoons, fish forks and knives appear and disappear with the comings and goings of each course. Palate-cleansing sorbets are served between courses.

"When I first came to Talbot County, I thought it would be very casual," says one guest, Bunny Dugan, an owner of the Cross Keys apparel shop Octavia's, who had a weekend house in Talbot some years ago. "I was soon being invited to black-tie dinners most Saturday nights. Everybody was dressed to the nines. I wound up taking more ball gowns down there than I'd ever worn in Baltimore. The people are very jetty.

L "This is where the Ferragamo and the Hermes meet the khaki."

Talbot's Top 10

According to the Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation, here are the top property tax assessments in Talbot County for 1997. The figures are for house and land; the city of residence is listed when known:

1. Franz Burda, German publisher, Baden-Baden, Germany: 76 acres, $5.1 million.

2. A. James Clark, construction firm owner and Johns Hopkins philanthropist, Talbot County: 16 acres, $3.1 million

3. Retirement Community of Easton, 700 Port St., Easton: 6 acres, $3 million

4. Robert S. Evans, owner of Crane plumbing fixtures, Greenwich, Conn.: 412 acres (Courtland Farm), $2.9 million

Anstalt Almega, a Swedish firm: 31.5 acres, $2.7 million

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