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PBS show 'Downtown Abbey' whets appetite for tour of former Turnbull house

After watching the PBS blockbuster"Downton Abbey"into the wee hours of a recent Monday, I visited another historic home, one right here in Baltimore. Built centuries after Britain's Highclere Castle, the Baltimore home and studio of the late artist Grace Turnbull have also become historic property, one which is being lovingly tended and brought into 21st century life by new, young owners.  

Designed to the renowned artist's specification by her brother Bayard, the house and studio were built in 1928, when the area was rural Waverly, prior to its development as Guilford by the Roland Park Company. Considered Mediterranean Revival in style, the home and studio are stucco with wood and wrought iron trim, all recently repaired, refinished and repainted.  

Turnbull's work is preserved on the property, itself protected by the city's Commission for Architectural and Historic Preservation. At the driveway entrance, in the same position as Turnbull left it, is a small sheep. That little lamb is as peaceful as Turnbull's Naiad (in the Mount Vernon Square fountain) is playful. Her iconic totems, three tree trunks carved with religious themes, still stand at the corners of the house. They depict the Madonna, St. Francis preaching to the birds and the flight into Egypt. Inside, in what is now the nursery, is one of Turnbull's inscribed doors, this one with the word, "Peace."

Peace is the feeling a Monday morning visitor had when stepping inside the renovated home, where three dogs and a two-year-old now reside.

While many rooms have been reconfigured and redesigned by architect James R. Grieves, the integrity of the interior is beautifully preserved and enhanced.  

The majority of ceilings in this cottage-style home remain low, while the long, open living room retains its two-story height. An open, second-floor hallway and railing scribe the living room walls like a balcony. The master bedroom retains its angled ceiling, complete with skylights, in a room believed to have been Turnbull's painting studio.

Thoroughly modern bathrooms have been configured by moving doors and adjusting walls. A contemporary kitchen, used nightly by the husband-chef, was created by removing a back staircase and relocating the basement door and steps.  

According to the current owners, Turnbull patterned her home after an inn in Toledo, Spain, with a twist of Bermuda. Certainly, the dark wood trim feels Spanish, and the stucco cottage style feels like Bermuda, although painted in earthen, Mediterranean tones. Wide louvers on original shutters have a decidedly colonial feeling, as in West Indian colonial.

Turnbull's studio building features a bell tower with a tiny stained glass window. That studio today functions as a work area and holds original fixtures, trim and doors removed during the renovation. One door has already been recycled to create a desk inside the house.

Most of Turnbull's boxwoods have gone the way of many statuesque boxwoods once in Baltimore. A narrow driveway does not accommodate modern cars, but perhaps a cobblestone drive and courtyard might someday fit well with the Turnbull house and surrounding Tudor and Georgian homes of Guilford.

Maintaining a historic house is a commitment. Every detail is carefully considered. Take the living room chandeliers, for example. The original living room chandeliers needed replacing. History and family history were preserved by installing two Medieval reproduction wrought iron chandeliers used in the French home of the current owner's aunt, the late Elaine Hamilton. Like Turnbull, Hamilton was a renowned artist. Two of Hamilton's energetic, abstract paintings hang near the chandeliers, along with her pen and ink drawings. Photographs of the owners' parents stand nearby on the mantel, with other family pictures throughout the house, plus toys and dog leashes.

The 21st century incarnation of Grace Turnbull's historic home, like the fictional Downton Abbey and real-life Highclere Castle, is very much a family affair.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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