For 32 years after noted artist Grace Turnbull died in 1976, the house that she built in Guilford in 1928 sat empty, except for a few erstwhile renters — and some squirrels in the roof.
Then, in 2008, manufacturing executive Douglas Hamilton III and his wife, Angela, a procurement manager, bought the six-bedroom, five-bath Spanish Colonial with Bermuda influences, in the 200 block of Chancery Road.
But the Hamiltons didn't move in until December 2011, because the house, though uniquely artistic, was antiquated, poorly laid out and in ill repair. Outside the boxwoods were blighted and the grounds needed work. Inside there were holes in its ceilings, bad traffic flow and little rooms, built to a smaller scale for the 4-foot-10 Turnbull, who was in her 90s when she died.
"I called it a rabbit's warren," said Douglas Hamilton, 35.
Now, after spending "six figures" to renovate and reconfigure it to a three-bedroom, four-bath house, the Hamiltons, formerly of Catonsville, are opening their famous fixer-upper to the public April 28 for the 2013 Maryland House and Garden Pilgrimage tour. The pilgrimage, an annual showcase of area homes, is focusing on Guilford this year in honor of the upscale neighborhood's centennial celebration.
The centerpiece for many tourgoers may be 223 Chancery, which Baltimore City designated as historic in 2011. The Hamiltons say admirers often ask, "You live in the Turnbull house?"
But although the Hamiltons are flattered and accepted the invitation of pilgrimage officials to include their house on the tour, the family is a little embarrassed by all the attention and nervous about showing a house they say is still a work in progress.
"So we hope they're not disappointed," Douglas Hamilton said.
They are also mindful of the rocky history of the house and its separate garage/studio building with a bell tower. Turnbull willed the property and artwork to the Maryland Historical Society with the stipulation that "the premises be kept intact as far as possible" and perhaps even exhibited "as a memorial to my family and me."
But after accepting Turnbull's gift and honoring her wishes for three decades, directors of the historical society relinquished all rights to the residence. The house and its contents, from sculptures and paintings to furniture and books, went on the auction block, despite the efforts of a private group to raise money to avert the auction and keep the house and contents together.
In anticipation of the sale, the Baltimore City Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation took emergency action to add the property to a list that prevents any new owner from tearing down the house, or altering its exterior, without the commission's approval.
"It was a little controversial when we first bought it," Angela Hamilton said. "There were people who didn't want it sold."
"It was just a story of a house that nobody knew what to do with," Douglas Hamilton said. He said Turnbull appears to have preserved the house as a shrine.
But, he added, "It was an opportunity to be in a very special place. It was just a unique house."
The public will see a residence that looks a lot different than it did in Turnbull's day. Modeled on the Cervantes Inn in Toledo, Spain, the 3,300-square-foot house is unchanged outside, because historic designation restricts the exterior changes the couple can make.
But inside, it now features fewer but larger rooms and a master bedroom suite with its own fireplace. The lighting and plumbing are all new, as is the kitchen and the heating and air conditioning. The oak and pine floors have been sanded and refinished.
"It was a ton of work," Douglas Hamilton said.
Working with architect James Grieves, they sacrificed a few rooms in the reconfiguration, but, "It wasn't much of a sacrifice," Angela Hamilton said.
For the public, the house is living history. For the Hamilton family, it is home.
During a preview tour for the Baltimore Messenger on April 5, the Hamiltons' daughter, Charlotte, 3, curled up on a sofa, watching a big-screen TV in a cozy den off the marble-accented country kitchen.
The family's dogs, Yorkies Moxie and Bruiser, barked madly in their kennel, which is built into the inside of a kitchen island.
"We love this kitchen," Douglas Hamilton said. "This is where we spend most of our time."
Also notable is Turnbull's old studio, where steps in the bell tower lead to a decorative corner alcove with a single, tiny stained glass window.
Several 12-foot totems that Turnbull carved with religious imagery, a favorite theme of hers, are lashed strategically to the house and studio. Turnbull stood on a ladder and carved them in place, the Hamiltons said. Another totem lies flat while the family figures out what to do with it. It was sold at auction but Douglas' father tracked it down and bought it back for them as a Christmas gift last year.
The epicenter of the house is its high-ceilinged, wood-paneled parlor, or great room, where the couple sat at a plain wooden table, drinking coffee and showing old photos of Turnbull mowing her lawn and making sculptures. Doors to the upstairs bedrooms open off a balcony that wraps around the parlor.
Artwork by Douglas Hamilton's brother, Palden, and late great-aunt, Elaine Hamilton, hang on the balcony walls. Elaine Hamilton's wrought-iron chandeliers from France hang above the room. A 1919 Chickering piano sits in the parlor.
Ready for its close-up
The house still has a few problems. The parlor is a little dark because of all its heavy wood. And, says Angela Hamilton, "There really isn't a garden, so we're working on that."
A landscaper is coming before the tour and a lot of cleaning, detail and decorating work remains to be done, the Hamiltons said. Decorating may be the most difficult, because, "We can't agree on anything," Douglas Hamiilton said. "This is a difficult house, because it has such a strong character."
But he promised, "We'll be ready. We recognize that it's a house that people are interested in from a historical standpoint. We're just trying to keep it alive."
Tickets for the tour are $30 and optional lunch boxes are $15. Make checks payable to Maryland House and Garden Pilgrimage, care of the Guilford Association, 4200 St. Paul St., Suite 100, Baltimore, MD 21218. Tickets also can be purchased online at http://www.mhgp.org. Proceeds will benefit Sherwood Gardens. For more information about the tour and Guilford's centennial celebration, call Ann Giroux at 410-889-6484.