Cable series `Restore America' to feature Douglass summer home

Segment to show house of black abolitionist

May 06, 2001|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

Famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass spent two years building his summer home on the shores of Highland Beach, with dreams of looking out across the water to the Eastern Shore, where he was born a slave.

Although he died in 1895 before the house on Wayman Street was completed, Douglass was able to sit on his balcony overlooking the Chesapeake Bay.

Called Twin Oaks, the house is a little-known museum and repository of Douglass artifacts and will be featured tonight on "Restore America" on the Home and Garden Television cable channel.

The weekly series, which airs at 10 p.m., focuses on architectural restoration projects across the country.

On the verge of collapse in 1986 after years of neglect, the Douglass house was meticulously restored over 18 months by Annapolis architect Charles H. "Chip" Bohl and his wife, Barbara.

In 1996, the state and county bought the home from the couple for $500,000 and turned it over to the town of Highland Beach, four miles south of Annapolis. The bayfront community was founded in 1893 as the country's first vacation spot for African-Americans.

Raymond L. Langston, mayor of Highland Beach since 1995, hopes the HGTV segment will bring more attention to what he views as an often overlooked part of Maryland's history.

"Very few people know that less than 30 years after slavery, a group of African-Americans could afford summer homes," said Langston, whose house is next door to the Douglass home.

House's legacy

The HGTV segment on Twin Oaks was filmed about a year ago and includes interviews with Bohl, Langston and his wife, Jean, chairwoman of the Frederick Douglass Museum and Cultural Center board of directors.

Construction began on Twin Oaks in 1893, the year that Frederick Douglass' son, Maj. Charles R. Douglass, borrowed money from his father to buy the 44 acres that would become Highland Beach.

He and his wife, Laura, bought the property after they were denied entrance to nearby Bay Ridge, an all-white resort.

Charles Douglass sold lots to family and friends, eventually creating a summer enclave for prominent blacks. The town was incorporated in 1922, and many of the houses are owned by descendants of the original owners.

More than half of the homes are year-round residences.

Frederick Douglass helped design Twin Oaks, incorporating a small second-floor balcony.

In his autobiography, "My Bondage and My Freedom," Douglass wrote that he included the balcony "so that I as a free man could look across the bay to the Eastern Shore where I was born a slave," Langston said.

`A piece of history'

Bohl, who lived in the house from 1993 to 1995, said the second-floor porch was his favorite feature.

"He had this connection to the Chesapeake Bay because when he ran away from the Wye Plantation [in Talbot County] his escape was by the bay," Bohl said.

Alex Haley, the author of "Roots," visited Twin Oaks in 1991 and sat on the porch with Bohl and his wife on a summer evening.

"The conversation quieted down, and he said, `Yeah, it's quite a piece of history,'" Bohl said.

After Douglass' death, his grandson, Joseph, and Joseph's wife, Fannie, moved into the house.

When Fannie died in the early 1980s, Twin Oaks fell into disrepair.

In 1986, Bohl bought the dilapidated house for $70,000 and embarked on a complete restoration.

One of the first projects was to raise the house 4 feet because it sits in a flood plain.

During the restoration, Bohl found an original maroon-colored roofing shingle in the attic and came across other areas of the house that had been protected over the years.

These discoveries made it possible to re-create the color scheme of the 1890s resort-style house - khaki siding, forest green trim and a maroon roof and sash.

"Architecturally, it's a very camp-like color scheme perfectly appropriate for an 1895 summer home," Bohl said.

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