Acclaimed chef Robert Wiedmaier spends long, hectic days preparing haute French cuisine at Marcel’s in Washington, D.C., and overseeing his seven other popular restaurants along the East Coast.
So when each frenetic workweek is done, the chef-preneur craves a rejuvenating retreat where he, wife Polly and their two sons — Marcel, 16, and Beck, 11 — can spend quality time on weekends, holidays and summers.
For the Wiedmaier family, that haven is a historic 17th-century homestead situated on 22 acres along the Chesapeake Bay in Southern Maryland.
Rousby Hall and its Customs House sit on a bucolic sanctuary of scenic water views, herb gardens and towering oaks, along with fig, pear and apple trees. It’s not uncommon to see sailboats meandering by, sea gulls and osprey in flight, and rapturous sunsets melting into the sea at day’s end.
“We enjoy the outdoors, and for me, it’s just pure relaxation coming down here,” says Wiedmaier, 55, a German native (with a Belgian father and Californian mother) who arrived in the U.S. as a teen. “I fish, I hunt. I mow the lawn. When the weather is warm, the boys swim and go tubing. It’s the best.”
Yet Rousby Hall isn’t just a relaxing getaway. The property has quite the historical pedigree.
What’s now the Wiedmaiers’ domain was once a sprawling private estate that housed John Rousby I, one of Maryland’s earliest settlers and a liaison to King Charles I of England, and several generations of his descendants.
With its strategic location at the juncture of the Patuxent River and Chesapeake Bay, Rousby Hall was where ships that entered Colonial America would dock, declare their cargo and pay fees that went to the monarchy.
“There’s so much history here,” says Polly Wiedmaier, 50, who serves as chief marketing officer for the family restaurant group. “I’ve been reading books and learning so much about America’s early beginnings and the role that Maryland played.”
Today, Rousby Hall maintains an aristocratic air fit for its roots but has undergone extensive renovations and upgrades to make it suitable for a young, modern family.
The Wiedmaiers own two houses next door to each other. They purchased the Customs House, originally a one-room building used for British tax collections, in 2011, followed by Rousby Hall in 2013.
Rousby Hall, built in the 1600s, has the feel of a historic bed-and-breakfast. It still boasts original elements such as pre-war horsehair plaster walls, plate and chair rails, tobacco-stained hardwood floors and a banister that, legend has it, was nicked by the swords of British soldiers as they stormed through on horseback during the Revolutionary War.
There’s even a root cellar with an arched doorway framed in keystone brick that was found in the rubble of an excavation.
“We converted this into a wine cellar,” explains the chef as he descends a steep ladder into the cool space. He proudly points out bottles of champagne and other sips from around the world. “We have about 400 varietals.”
Elsewhere in the house, decorated in period style, there’s a spacious living room with high ceilings and large windows. The main floor boasts a sizable kitchen, a study and a master bedroom adjoined to the original exterior of the home with its wood panels, window and exterior shutters intact.
The guest closet outside of the master bedroom features a glass wall panel that exposes the structure and plaster behind the walls. The second floor has two spacious bedrooms with unique features such as gabled ceilings.
“Every room has its own working fireplace,” Polly Wiedmaier says.
Next door, the Customs House serves as the Wiedmaiers’ “main” vacation home. The structure had been in ruins and missing its roof when the previous owners salvaged it in the mid-1960s and later built additions for a private residence. Today, the Wiedmaiers have breathed new life into this coastal gem while ensuring that it accommodates an active family.
On a crisp afternoon with dappled sunlight illuminating the interior, the vibe is cozy, comfortable and fresh. A soothing color palette of yellows and beiges evoke natural hues.
Standout features include an open great room and a kitchen with cathedral ceilings reminiscent of a hunting lodge, complete with a mounted elk head over the brick fireplace.
Contemporary furnishings have a shabby-chic appeal. There are stuffed leather chairs, a velvet couch, a striped ottoman and a farmhouse-style wooden dining table, plus several old chests of drawers and other pieces Polly has carefully restored.
“I love decorating and fixing up,” says the lady of the manor with a smile, noting that she didn’t hire an interior decorator but kept some of the decorating from the previous owner. “I’ve kept some of that and added my own details. I love mixing old and new.”
The first-floor powder room is a perfect example. A vintage Edison hand-cranked phonograph has been repurposed into a sink.
“The turntable still plays records,” says Polly, pulling out a small collection of LPs stored underneath. Custom hand-towels initialed with “RH” (for Rousby Hall) are practical and elegant.
A staircase with a nautical rope banister leads to two guest rooms with exposed brick, gabled ceilings and fireplaces. One room has twin beds that once belonged to Polly’s father; she’s incorporated maritime-themed touches and pretty Serena & Lily bedding.
The Customs House is one of the chef’s favorite parts of their expansive home; the tiny room once used for collections is now a den. In 2005, wood-paneled walls were removed to reveal the brick underpinnings and original Georgian brick arches of the historic structure. These remain a primary focal point, along with some original plaster over Flemish bond brick.
“I thought this was a good place to showcase some Maryland memorabilia,” says Polly, pointing to a small collection of books, paintings and antiques.
Robert plops down on a chair and adds, “I come back here and enjoy a cognac with my friends.”
Crabs and callers
Back in the great room, sweeping views extend from a large, covered back porch past a private pier where the family’s 32-foot boat is docked. Nearby is a second pier perfect for fishing and crabbing.
“I catch crabs right off the pier,” says Robert, who received his culinary training in the Netherlands and whose successful restaurants (including a third Mussel Bar & Grille scheduled to open in March in Baltimore) offer a window into his heritage.
Wiedmaier — a knight of the Brewers’ Mash Staff, the modern version of an ancient guild in Brussels — was hand-chosen by the U.S. State Department to participate in its elite Diplomatic Culinary Partnership initiative with the James Beard Foundation as a chef-ambassador.
Still, there’s no pretension when it comes to cooking here.
“We have bushels of crabs, crab cakes and Old Bay-rubbed chicken on the grill,” Robert says.
The family has quickly formed a bond with the land and property. “We get so many visitors that sometimes it feels like a hotel,” says Polly, chuckling.
Her husband nods, knowingly. “Once you come here, you want to return again and again,” he says. “And it’s very hard to leave.”