One House Two Worlds

Walk in the front door of this unassuming twentieth-century Maryland town house. To the right you see an elegant eighteenth-century Philadelphia card table and side chair with a rococo looking glass above and an English portrait of about 1730 glimpsed through a doorway (see Fig. 2). Look beyond the entrance hall into the living room and there is more fine eighteenth-century furniture. But then, to the left, the door to the kitchen opens, and a different world comes into view (Fig. 1): a glass table with two twentieth-century Verner Panton–designed stacking side chairs, one of his idiosyncratic cone chairs in brilliant orange, and an aptly named “Z” stool by Gilbert Rohde; sleek blonde wall shelves hold more quintessential examples of mid-twentieth-century design—Peter Müller-Monk’s Normandie pitcher, Norman Bel Geddes’s Manhattan cocktail set, and Walter Von Nessen’s Coronet coffee urn, to name just a few.

You could describe the couple who own this town house in any of numerous ways for their myriad talents and interests—from botanist, lawyer, sailor, and medical laboratory director to travelers, architectural preservationists, photographers and lovers of food and wine—but do not call them “collectors.” As newlyweds in the 1960s, they “simply wanted to find beautiful—beautifully designed—things for our first apartment. I even went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to look at their silver and porcelain,” the wife remembers with amusement. “We were not collecting, we were furnishing a house to reflect who we are and in a way that would be comfortable for us and for our friends.” Doing so became a decades-long process that made their home into a visual and emotional center, not only for themselves, but also for the numerous curators, dealers, and scholars who share their interests in art, architecture, and design. Some of their pieces are exceptional, some are not. Not all are perfect or perfectly documented, but together they reflect the couple’s devotion to each other, to their regional and Maryland heritage, and to the things that matter to them both.

Husband and wife both grew up in Maryland, steeped in its history and art and nurtured by families who valued both. He went to Yale, where he was captivated by the lectures of the now legendary architectural historian Vincent Scully, which inspired a lifelong interest in the subject. Even as a child she was always “looking”—mostly at buildings and objects—bewitched by color, line, and form, and developing an “eye” for good design that has served her ever since. An important influence was Angelica Yonge (Mrs. Sifford) Pearre, a Baltimore collector whose son was their good friend.1 She was one of several women who, in the 1950s, had fostered the growth of the Baltimore Museum of Art and various preservation efforts in the city, and in many ways she served as a mentor to the young woman, who herself later became active in the museum as well as in the Baltimore Architecture Foundation and the historic house Homewood. Early on Mrs. Pearre recommended that she get to know the antiques dealer Joe Kindig III in York, Pennsylvania, an inspired suggestion that resulted in a relationship that continues to this day as one of mutual admiration and friendship, even if the acquiring is all done. “In those early days of their buying,” Kindig recalls, “we had a huge warehouse stuffed with things—some more interesting or important than others. She always found something interesting, and even if it was not in perfect shape, if they liked it, that was it.”

Indeed, condition was almost never an issue. They took home the mantelpiece now in the living room (Fig. 3) because under ten or more coats of paint it looked like the work of Robert Wellford (1775–1844). She took an ice pick and a scraper, and over the course of a year, meticulously dry-scraped it down to the original paint layer, revealing intricate compo ornament definitely ascribable to Wellford, including, in the center, the wheat motif associated with his Pennsylvania work. “The whole experience helped train my eyes, not only to the intricacies of Wellford’s compo but to that of virtually every other type of ornament I have looked at since.”

The mantelpiece forms the focal point of the room. Above it hangs an American portrait reputedly depicting the postmaster of Alexandria, Virginia (with his curious upswept hair style), flanked by exceptional Adamesque English gilded wall sconces of about 1780. The other furnishings include a desk-and-bookcase of about 1790 with inlay that ties it to Baltimore but other elements that suggest an origin in Charleston,2 and a sofa with the serpentine back flowing into the arms of Federal Baltimore examples.

by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

» View All