Couple resurrects James Michener's St. Michaels home

Literary legend has it that James Michener saw a great blue heron above the St. Michaels property he was inspecting and immediately decided to buy the 25 acres and the old house that sat on a creek off the Choptank River, near the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay.

It was an omen, he is said to have concluded. This would be where he researched and wrote his next expansive historical novel, "Chesapeake," which would be published in 1978. He called the retreat "Southwind" for the unceasing breeze that blew up the bay.

It was the same kind of epiphany that struck Dr. Paul and Anne Yarbrough Gurbel of Baltimore, who had been searching for a weekend home in St. Michaels for two years.

"It was like Mr. Michener did all the hard work for us," said Anne, who found the notebook in which he recorded his house-hunting.

But it was the view, not the blue heron, that made up their minds to buy the property in 1995, despite its dated interior and worn exterior.

Both Anne, an interior designer, and Paul, a cardiac surgeon at Baltimore's Sinai Hospital, had memories of growing up on the water with their fathers and uncles, taking out small boats and crabbing, fishing or duck hunting.

She learned to love the water at her family's weekend home on Currituck Sound off the coast of North Carolina. Paul, who grew up in Homeland, learned to love the water at a family home on Eastern Bay. When the couple stood at the water's edge, each was carried back to a happy childhood.

Like the author, they were not captivated by the interior of the house, with its green shag carpeting, vinyl flooring, "harvest gold" paint and appliances. "I could see that it was a project," Anne says delicately of the house she has transformed over nearly 20 years.

But as they left that view and that dated cottage in the rear-view mirror, Anne said, "I had this really overwhelming feeling we had to buy this place, and I am not an impulsive person." Her husband suspects it was the allee of loblolly pine along the driveway that reinforced her memories of home in Durham.

The house had been vacant for 12 years, tended by a caretaker who lived in a cottage Michener and his wife, Mari, had converted from a garage. At the time of the sale, Michener had long since relocated to Texas, and his wife had recently died.

Though his home base was in Doylestown, Pa., close to the Quaker community in he which was raised as a foundling, he had relocated to places like Southwind to research or write his books. He was gradually divesting himself of those properties after making a permanent home in Austin, where he died just two years after the sale.

"May you enjoy the house on which we spent so much care," reads the inscription in the Gurbels' copy of "Chesapeake," a rare expression in writing by the author, who had taken to autographing all his books with a red rubber stamp that said "JAM."

Mari was said to have loved Southwind so much that she wanted her husband to write "Chesapeake II," but instead he dispatched her to Texas to find a home base for "Texas," which would be published in 1985. He had already read 300 books about the state, and he was 75.

But before he departed, he also wrote "The Covenant," a sweeping historical novel of South Africa that was published in 1980 with the substantial help of South African journalist Erroll Lincoln Uys (pronounced 'Ace.'), who remembers the five-month press toward deadline in the second half of 1979, when he and Michener hunkered down and just wrote.

"It was a very, very small house," said Uys from his home in Massachusetts where he has written extensively about his collaboration with Michener. "It was a simple life and a totally demanding schedule. And Mari was the guardian at the gate. I don't recall more than one or two visitors.

"He loved the sounds of the place. He would take long walks out to the end of the dock and stand there while he tried to figure something [about the book] out. He loved the sounds of the migrating ducks. He loved the nature of the place," said Uys, who went on to write his own sprawling novel, "Brazil," with the support of Michener.

Michener worked in the tiny second bedroom that overlooked the garden and the hundreds of trees he had planted, surrounding the house with the privacy of a pine forest. He would walk there in the late afternoon, using one of his collection of walking sticks. There was a small manual typewriter on which he pounded from 8 a.m. until late at night, breaking for meals and a ritual nap.

Almost everything had been removed from the house when the Gurbels bought it. All that was left was the outdated '70s decorating scheme that Anne recorded in a photo album. The place had the look of "The Brady Bunch."

"We slept on cots, we were so excited to be here," recalls Anne, who almost immediately regretted inviting her family from North Carolina for a visit. Things were awfully primitive.

Today, thanks to Anne, the house has a large sun porch with a view of the water on two sides, and a cozy living room — minus the green shag and the gold walls. Michener's office has been reinvented as a guest room. Anne has made a tribute to him there: The accent pillows and the window treatments are made of blue/gray fabric decorated with script.

The dining room sits in the original part of the house, which dates to about 1850, but the sunny breakfast nook serves as a writing area for Paul, a pioneer in the life-saving stent surgery which former President George W. Bush underwent this summer.

(Interesting note: Former Vice President Dick Cheney is a neighbor, as is former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. When the heart doctor saw a man who looked very much like Cheney being tended to by emergency personnel, he ran toward the house thinking to offer his help. When the man was carried off by state police helicopter, he assumed the worst. It was nothing more than a dry run, he says. The Cheneys held a crab feast later that day.)

The Gurbels are lucky to get to Southwind twice a month, but it is a retreat from the work pressures of Baltimore for both of them.

The only sounds are the birds and the low, pre-dawn conversation of the watermen as they motor out. Sitting in a grotto near the pool they installed, they have the feeling they are away from the world, though the house is a gathering place for friends and relatives. They also gather whatever they can catch off the dock or from their 32-foot fishing boat. There are stars and breezes and moonlight.

Also in evidence is Anne's heritage. She is of English descent, and her company, Henshall Hall Interiors, is named for her family home there. Her grandfather, Arthur Johnson, was one of the master potters of Johnson Brothers dinnerware fame and related by marriage to Alfred Meakin, one of the foremost pottery and china designers of the last century.

Their pieces became collectors' items almost immediately upon their release, and as a 14-year-old, Anne was urged by her mother to choose her own pattern before Johnson Brothers was subsumed by Wedgewood.

Her selection of "Birds of America" was prescient, and the dinnerware brightens the breakfast nook with the view that captured the couple's hearts on a wintry day almost two decades ago.

Through that window, on the boulders that protect Southwind from storms, can often be seen a great blue heron.

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