Oliver House gives glimpse into the past

June 19, 2005|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Oliver House has a history as rich as its structure. Its current owners, Stephen and Sharon Crum, are doing their part to ensure its preservation by restoring the property.

Although the house is named for its original owner, Robert Oliver, it gained historical attention because of its architect, Robert Mills. Both men have a place in the history of Maryland.

Oliver, a merchant and one of the original directors of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, purchased about 1,500 acres, which included what is now Oliver Beach.

He commissioned American-born architect Robert Mills, an exponent of Federalist and Greek Revival architecture, to build a hunting lodge there. Mills had already made a name for himself in architecture, and Oliver wanted to build a showpiece.

Long after his death in 1855, Mills remains an epochal figure in 19th-century architecture. He's credited with building more than 50 major structures, including the Washington Monument and other government buildings in Washington, as well as the Washington Monument in Baltimore.

When Mills was contacted to build the replacement U.S. Treasury building in Washington after the War of 1812, he concentrated on fire control.

"After the British burned down the buildings in Washington, D.C., Mills wanted to find ways to protect his structures in the event of another fire," Stephen Crum said. "He was ahead of his time. He built this house using several of the fire-safety features included in the Treasury building."

Mills built Oliver's Federalist-style hunting lodge in 1820 for about $7,000. The original structure contained two kitchens and six bedrooms. The current structure has five kitchens and an addition, built in 1920.

The fire-safety features are exclusive to the first level. The brick walls in the main parlor are 1 foot thick.

The center of the house has no fireplaces.

"Fireplaces were used in this house for heat and for cooking," Crum said. "The fireplaces were in the outer third of the building so people could escape to the center to get out in the event of a fire."

There are seven fireplaces in the house now, and five are still used.

The first level is almost entirely preserved. The Federalist architectural features are evident throughout the house.

Identical doors with transoms and sidelights lead into the front and back of the house.

The first-floor parlor looks out onto the Gunpowder River. Oliver owned an import and export business and was said to stand on his front porch and watch his ships come in.

"He was known for trying new things and leading the way for others," Crum said. "He was known as a scientific farmer. He was involved with the railroad from its inception. He was very wealthy and loved to entertain. He tried things other people didn't."

The house he built features two large, identical medallions that grace the parlor ceiling, along with plaster trim. The Crums discovered the difficulty of re-creating the medallions and trim after a fire in 2000 damaged the ceiling.

"The second floor was completely destroyed in that fire," Sharon Crum said. "The first floor only received minor damage to the ceiling. The fire safety features Mills implemented helped save the first floor. The second floor took almost a year to repair.

"The fire damaged some of the medallion and part of the trim and it had to be repaired," she said. "Watching the medallion being worked on gave us a greater appreciation for the construction of the house."

Since the Crums purchased the house in 1993, they have researched the history and are working to restore, renovate and upgrade the property.

"We bought this place because we have three boys and really needed the space," Stephen Crum said. "But we also bought it because it is a part of history. We want to do what we can to take care of the property."

The Crums have upgraded the kitchens and bathrooms, installed new carpeting, done landscaping and upgraded the house with modern amenities.

Stephen Crum is repairing and refinishing the woodwork on the front porch. The wood, a red oak, is thick, old and very intricate, slowing the restoration process.

The Crums plan to redo the brick walks around the house and upgrade the main kitchen.

"We are moving slowly because these projects take time and money," Sharon Crum said. "This house costs $10,000 a year to heat and have hot water. We have to do things as we can. I love this house. The fact that it's old and a remaining part of history really appeals to me. I like that it has been well-kept by the owners over the years and it still functions."

According to Stephen Crum, their main goal is to maintain the property as a home.

"There are people who want to turn this house into a museum," he said. "We don't want that. This house has been a hunting lodge, and a gentlemen's club and a single-family home. We want to preserve it that way. Even when Oliver owned this property he had parties and his political associates stayed here when they were on the road. They chose to stay at the lodge instead of roadhouses. The doors were always open. This place is a home with a piece of Maryland history and we want to keep it that way."

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