Ron Browning, an avid collector and former history teacher, is pictured in the large first floor bathroom decorated with book bindings to give it a library feel.
Ron Browning, an avid collector and former history teacher, is pictured in the large first floor bathroom decorated with book bindings to give it a library feel. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun)

Ron Browning enjoys showing off his historic Havre de Grace home to visitors, and when he has the room, they are invited to stay in his 1868 mansion-turned-bed-and-breakfast.

Once the home of Harrison Hopkins of the Johns Hopkins family, Browning well remembers the day in June 1994 when it was sold at auction.

"All of its contents [from the prior owner] were sitting on the front lawn," he recalls. "The house was in bad shape. The shutters were off the windows, the chimneys leaked, and wisteria, ivy and grapevines were twisted around them."

Browning and his business partner thought the "white elephant" would be the perfect place for their antiques shop, placing it in the lower level with living space on the second floor.

They purchased the 17-room house for $195,000 and became eligible for a commercial, low-cost loan to fix it up. However, in 1996, they decided to open it as a bed-and-breakfast in the historic riverside town. In 2001, Browning bought his partner out and has since been living in the house and operating it as one of just a handful of guesthouses in town.

"The construction of the home [is] French Empire and eclectic style," he says. "The cuckoo clock window, the corbels and bull's eyes, the elongated windows and lack of symmetry all add up to a very quirky style of home."

Quirky, yes, but also fascinating. The all-brick home boasts a mansard roof of Flemish bond slate. At street level, two chunky posts and a pair of ominous-looking cast-iron lions guard the brick-lined entrance leading to a large front porch from which hangs a carved wooden banner with gilded lettering stating simply "Guesthouse." Beside the front door, a brass plaque certifies the 1868 home as recognized by the Maryland Historic Trust.

Inside, seventeen Strauss chandeliers glow in the first floor's elegant rooms, the light reflecting on the original oak flooring with walnut inlay. Like a tour guide, Browning, a 63-year-old retired history teacher, brings it all together for guests, who are likely to be overwhelmed.

"The house contains examples of Empire, Baroque, French Provincial, Hepplewhite, Duncan Phyfe, Sheraton, Eastlake, Chippendale and Queen Anne [pieces,] to name a few," he says. "My favorite oldest pieces are the vaisselier from 17th-century France in fruitwood in the Russia room and the Baroque Revival closed china in the front dining room. Also old is the Queen Anne oak, made in England, candlestand [from] 1790."

Favorites among his myriad furnishings include a railroad memorabilia collection, especially treasured because his father and grandfather both worked on the railroad.

"Dad worked on the Patapsco and Back River Railroad for Bethlehem Steel and granddad on the B&O Railroad for a short time," he says. "I enjoy the lanterns, the stock certificates, the menus and, of course, the B&O Railroad china."

This collection is gathered and displayed in the informal dining room, the home's original kitchen. Here guests can enjoy breakfast while gazing around a room brimming with copper plates and utensils as well as pieces of delftware, another favorite collection.

Browning has named his rooms, and with the help of a friend and painter, Mary Poughkeepsie, has created malachite walls for the Russia Room, lapis lazuli for the Lapis Room /Office, pink marble and fleur-de-lis for the stairway and the faux leather for the bath ceiling in the Lafayette Room.

"The snug little jewel box Lapis Room had always been my favorite after Mary executed it, especially with the Rip Van Winkle chair, the secretary and the starry ceiling," he says. "Since she has completed the Russia Room, with its candleliers, the vaisselier, the mirror and the Staffordshire figurines and plates, [that] is my favorite.

The home's second floor is for the guests — three separate guestrooms. One of the most beautiful is the Rochambeau Suite, named in honor of the Count de Rochambeau who marched his troops through Havre de Grace en route to Yorktown, Va., from Brandywine, Pa., near Philadelphia in 1781. Most of the French Provincial mahogany furniture, circa 1920, was acquired from an estate in Catonsville. Antiques in all three of the guest rooms are cataloged and for sale.

While Browning is not entirely sure how much longer he will run his house as a B&B, one thing is for certain — his contentment in both house and town remains.

"Havre de Grace is a wonderful river town that has a fantastic history as the crossroads of the Susquehanna River," he said. "I enjoy the river view I have every morning from my side yard. It invigorates me."

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