Home On the Bay

Marilyn and John Hannigan of Bethesda have turned a ramshackle house on the Shore into a weekend refuge for friends and family

June 24, 2007|By Susan Reimer | Susan Reimer,Sun Reporter

ST. MICHAELS // The center hall is a remarkable, 60-foot alley that shotguns the strong breezes of the eastern Chesapeake Bay straight through the main house. Marilyn Hannigan spied it through the dusty windows of the double front doors and fell in love.

That was 25 years ago. She and husband John had been visiting in nearby Sherwood on Maryland's Eastern Shore, and their friends -- still there and still friends -- said there might be a little ramshackle something down the road that they might like.

They weren't in the market for a second home. John, who was building a real estate career with the visionary James Rouse after graduating from the University of Maryland and spending time in the military, lived in Bethesda with Marilyn, who also went to Maryland, and who was building what would be a successful antiques business, Cherishables Antiques.

"I didn't know how I'd have time for a second home," said John.

Let alone two second homes. The main house, with its astonishing center hall, had been built in 1909 by Baltimore's Rice family, which ran a bakery business from the 1870s until the early 1970s.

Steps away, they built a second, smaller building, where the servants lived and did the cooking so the main house and its sleeping rooms would stay cool.

"It just seemed like we claimed it the minute we walked in," said Marilyn.

This is the story of a different kind of second home. Well, two second homes. Bought not in near retirement with the accumulated wealth of a long and successful career, but in the early days of married life when money was tight and the demands of work left little time to relax.

This is a not the story of a waterfront show house, although Marilyn's decorating skills have drawn the attention of two magazines. Instead, it is the story of a pair of houses refined and restored during what amounted to a quarter-century of weekend projects.

"Every weekend, we did something," said John. "We didn't have a vision of what it could be. We just knew we couldn't come here and not do something."

All these years later, there are still plenty of projects -- Marilyn paid a neighbor child 10 cents each to help her cut out the wallpaper dogs that she used to decorate the wainscoting in a powder room. John is working against nature to reinforce the shoreline with huge rocks.

But the work stops when friends arrive.

"It looks great today, but this has been 25 years," said John. "We liked the idea that it was on the water, but it has added something else to our lives."

Life on the porch

The center of the Hannigans' life here on the outskirts of St. Michaels is the L-shaped screened porch which wraps around the corner of the main house.

That's where they entertain a sprawling extended family of friends and Bethesda neighbors who visit just about every weekend from April to October, along with an assortment of children and dogs.

John grills one of Marilyn's trademark pork tenderloins -- purchased at the Amish Market in Annapolis on the trip from Bethesda and carefully marinated. Desert is simple but memorable. Hershey's Moosetracks ice cream in tin ice cream dishes once used at Woolworth's lunch counters.

There might be six or 16 around the seven-foot Plexiglas tabletop that is anchored to a trio of iron gates -- one of many such Marilyn-found antiques adapted to the house. The decorative screen door on the cooking cottage was something she found, but didn't sell.

The only electricity on the porch runs the ceiling fans, which, along with the evening breezes from the bay, cool the porch and tease the candles and oil lamps that light the comfortable companionship of the diners.

When the evening is done, the guests retire to the three bedrooms on the first floor of the main house, and the Hannigans return to the old cooking house, which has been converted to a comfortable cottage for them.

"I think air conditioning was the first project," remembers John with a rueful laugh on a blistering hot June day. "But the fun of this place is being outside."

When you spend a weekend with friends at such a place, said John, you get to know them. The pair of houses have any number of spots, indoors and out, to which hosts and guests can retreat for comfort and conversation.

"I was out with the dogs one morning and I found a perfect spot on the porch," he said of a corner of the cottage's tiny porch. "I've been here all these years but I thought, 'This is perfect. Right here.'"

The dogs are 8-year-old Chessie, a reserved golden retriever, and the more rambunctious Oliver, a labradoodle who is just a year and a half. The dogs doze in the back of the van on the ride from Bethesda Friday evenings, but come alive the minute the Hannigans turn off Easton Road.

The dogs' friends visit, too. "We've had as many as six or seven dogs here," said Marilyn.

Across the front lawn and down to the water, there is a small pier, a picnic table for crabs and a 22-foot runabout.

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