Glenn Uminowicz - October 2006
Would you touch the zenith of life? Would you revel in the beauties of nature; feel a holy reverence for the past; have your manhood stimulated, and resolve to make the history of this present time as glorious as the record of your ancestry? If so, go to Maryland, and tread in the footsteps of the Cavaliers.
– From Frank N. Barrett published in The American Grocer (1912)
Frank N. Barrett visited Talbot County in 1911. Local historian Oswald Tilghman served as a guide for this New York magazine publisher. As a member of one of the area’s oldest families, it proved no surprise that Tilghman focused his tour on Talbot’s great country houses.
The itinerary included a pilgrimage to Wye House, the plantation home to ten generations of the Lloyd family. Tilghman next escorted the magazine publisher to Hope House then owned by William J. Starr, a “lumber king of the far West,” where the gardens were especially impressive. The day ended with dinner at the home of Willard G. Rouse. Barrett delighted in consuming soft-shell crabs and guinea hen. The New Yorker also took in the “fruits of hospitality born of sparkling wit, brilliant anecdote, ancestral history, topics of the time, memories of the past, hopes of the future.”
After his visit, Barrett concluded, “The wealth and culture of other places have found out the beauties of Talbot. The shores of its waters are being lined with beautiful homes, where men, weary of the strife for gold, seek rest and health.”
By the early 1900s, those weary men and their families spawned what historian Clive Aslet called “a self-conscious country house movement.” Around the nation, a cadre of architects carved out hundreds of new estates. Popular magazines published articles on the joys of country life. For a variety of reasons, Maryland’s Eastern Shore assumed a place in the forefront of the monied rush to the countryside.
First of all, a tradition of countryseats already existed in places like Talbot County. Wye House was constructed in the 1780s. In 1824, as a six-year-old, Frederick Douglass experienced his first taste of plantation life at the Lloyd property. Wye House served as the working center of an estate spanning thousands of acres and employing hundreds of slaves. Douglass later remembered this self-sufficient agricultural operation, listing its “barns, stables, storehouses and tobacco houses, blacksmiths’ shops, wheelwrights’ shops, coopers’ shops, kitchens, wash-houses, dairies, summer-houses, green-houses, hen-houses, turkey-houses, pigeon-houses, and arbors.”
At Wye House, only luxuries needed to be imported. Douglass recalled, “Immense wealth and its lavish expenditures filled the Great House with all that could please the eye or tempt the taste.” Noting the cruel effects of slavery, the abolitionist also observed, “The table of this house groaned under blood-bought luxuries.”
Historian William Mcfeely insisted that Douglass had ambivalent feelings about Wye House. It stood both as the “palace of his imagining” and the “emblem of slavery’s evil.”
In 1881, in the company of the Collector at the Port of Baltimore, Douglass visited Wye House. Eighteen-year-old Howard Lloyd escorted his guests around the property. They ended their stroll on the veranda. Douglass then recalled, “We were soon invited from this delightful outlook into the large dining-room, with its old-fashioned furniture, its mahogany sideboard, its cut-glass chandeliers, decanters, tumblers, and wineglasses, and cordially invited to refresh ourselves with wine of most excellent quality.”
Mcfeely insisted that present realities were not on Douglass’ mind on that day in June. He indulged only in a “nostalgic recreation of things past.” Throughout his career, however, Douglass noted that even many of his fellow reformers might stand with him on a speaker’s platform but failed to invite him into their home parlors. Douglass attributed their reticence to being only “half-cured” of racism. He insisted that “colorphobia” could only be cured when the races shared the spaces within their private homes.
After leaving Wye House, Douglass visited another Lloyd family member, an elderly widow. He was received in the parlor and introduced to the grandchildren. After the visit, Douglass mused that a new sense of justice and kindness might yet be possible in the South, as well as the North. He wondered if the “rising generation are turning their eyes from the sunset of decayed institutions to the grand possibilities of a glorious future.”
Unlike Douglass, very little ambivalence was evident among participants in the country house movement. They knew what they wanted and were willing to pay for it. In 1904, Barr Ferree defined the aims of the movement in American Estates and Gardens:
The great country house as it is now understood is a new type of dwelling, a sumptuous house, built at large expense, often palatial in its dimensions, furnished in the richest manner and placed on an estate, perhaps large enough to admit of independent farming operations, and in most cases with a garden that is an integral part of the architectural scheme.
In the 19th century, the plantation itself produced the wealth evident at Wye House. By 1904, the new country house was being paid for by the “strife for gold” going on elsewhere. As Aslet described it, the country house was now “a stage-set version of country life which had little purpose beyond pleasure, relaxation, and sometimes showing off.”
Talbot County boasted both a tradition of country houses and a solid record regarding their enjoyment. In Land of Legendary Lore (1898), Prentiss Ingraham described the gracious hospitality, the horse racing, fox hunting, and yachting that had long been enjoyed on the Eastern Shore. This was the “Old Maryland way.”
This constituted the perfect sales pitch for those seeking a country estate. While inspired by the lives of English country gentlemen, the proponents of the new country living stressed its uniquely American qualities. The “Old Maryland way” allowed the owners of country houses to tread in the footsteps of the Cavaliers.
History directly influenced Talbot County house design with the increasing popularity of a number of revival styles. Among the most popular was the Colonial Revival. Again, the style boasted American roots harkening back to the “Old Maryland way.”
In addition to building a historical connection from scratch, “foreigners” from outside the Eastern Shore could acquire a property with a real history and then build upon it. An outstanding example of this approach is Hope House.
William J. Starr acquired the estate in 1906 and immediately set about rebuilding the house using historic photographs for inspiration. He recreated a classic double-wing house, installing a massive dining room in one wing and a Gothic library in the other. New brickwork matched the older portion of the house and new porches along “true colonial lines” framed the main entrances to the building.
The Hope House gardens garnered considerable acclaim. Mrs. Starr claimed responsibility for their creation. In 1912, she authored a magazine article entitled “The Spirit of the Garden.” Written as if she were in conversation with a visitor, Starr touched upon important qualities desired in a country house.
Owners of country houses did not crave utter isolation. The social whirl, so important to country living, required access to neighbors and nearby towns. The first question Mrs. Starr’s fictional houseguest asked was how long did it take to get from the railroad station to the house? In good weather, it took twenty minutes by automobile.
On the other hand, an estate required enough acreage to visually shield it from nearby properties. Mrs. Starr emphasized the green wall of woodland that surrounded Hope. She informed her guest, “That wall shuts in our City of Refuge.”
Finally, the appearance of antiquity and integrating a building with the surrounding landscape constituted hallmarks of good country house design. Driving up to Hope, Mrs. Starr’s guest remarked on the recently constructed wings of the building. He asked, “How did you ever take the new look off?” From the garden side of the house, vine-covered trellises led into Hope with its examples of furniture from the colonial period. New money from beyond the Eastern Shore paid for the house and grounds, but the aim was to recapture the “Old Maryland way.”