Dream home: Historic gift

Living room in "Rachael's Dowry," a bed and breakfast in Ridgely's Delight.
Living room in "Rachael's Dowry," a bed and breakfast in Ridgely's Delight. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun)

Almost 300 years ago, Rachael Howard and her betrothed, Charles Ridgely, were given a large tract of land in Southwest Baltimore as a wedding gift from her father.

Decades later in 1798, Michael Warner, a politician from a wealthy local family, built a brick home on a section of that land, which by then had become known as Ridgely's Delight.

Today, the owners of Warner's historic Federal-era home operate a bed-and-breakfast from the restored 8,000-square-foot mansion that they have named "Rachael's Dowry."

"I am not Rachael, though people always think that," said Letitia Bohner, co-owner of the B&B.

It is then that her brother and co-owner, Norman Finnance, chronicles the historical facts — maybe for the hundredth time — with all the enthusiasm of the first telling.

From that moment on, the stage is set for an enlightened visit — or an unforgettable stay.

Guests walk through double front doors into the 10-foot-wide hallway's glowing warmth, where walls painted a muted shade of gold are the backdrop for framed prints depicting scenes from a country hunt. Reproduction paintings of the Warner family straddle a mahogany mirror over a stylish 19th-century mahogany hunt-board table.

With the idea of someday operating a B&B, Finnance and his sister have been collecting period furniture since the purchase of the home in 1981.

"I moved down the street in 1977 and paid $11,000 for my home there," said Finnance, who became drawn to the restoration process.

Envisioning a new project, he became interested in the old Warner House, with a statue of George Washington on the front lawn. It was originally built as a villa in the Federal style and later renovated in the 19th century, introducing several elements of the Victorian era.

"The house was in very bad shape," he recalled. "It wasn't livable. Everything was overgrown and mantel pieces lay on the floor broken."

Despite its condition, Finnance bought the mansion for $100,000. He and his sister, along with her son, Jacob Canal, the third co-owner and marketing director, would not begin the restoration project until decades later.

During that time, Finnance collected all of the furnishings for the home. He would scout antiques shops, auctions, estate sales and even yard sales for original pieces from the Federal and Victorian periods, mixing them with reproduction pieces.

Work to restore the house began in 2007 and took more than two years. The B&B opened for business in April.

Restoration "was a whole family affair, and I was exhausted every night," Bohner said, noting a particularly difficult job of sanding all of the baseboards and molding. Spouses were brought in to help.

Breaking the work into phases, Finnance cited three: first the exterior work; next, the hiring of a building contractor; and last, cleaning, scraping, sanding and decorating in what all comes together in Empire, Victorian and Arts & Crafts decor.

"We budgeted $300,000 for the restoration, and it came to $380,000" said Bohner. "But it's our home, and it pays our bills."

Public areas in the home consist of the grand parlor and dining room, the windows of which boast period-style silk draperies, a library with authentic Duncan Phyphe furniture and six guest rooms — each with a bath. Four bedrooms with private baths, as well as sitting rooms and three large kitchens, are belowstairs, where the family lives and works.

Green technology used in the restoration, as well as the maintenance of the B&B, are of particular pride to Finnance and his nephew.

"We have a solar hot-water system, solar panels on the roof, natural fabrics, unscented cleaners, recycled marble dust [for sink counters] and low-flow showers," Finnance said.

These modern additions are somehow overlooked when wrapped in the ambience of Victorian marble fireplaces, brass chandeliers and original tongue-and-groove pine flooring.

It has been documented that George Washington, after an accident on the road, was attended to in the Warner House, now "Rachael's Dowry."

"To think that [Washington] could have been eating at this very table [in the dining room] gives me goose bumps," Bohner said. "If there's ever an economic downturn, the whole family can live here. There's room in the inn!"

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Making the dream

Dream element Rachael's Dowry is located in the Ridgely's Delight neighborhood in Southwest Baltimore on a street of restored homes dating to the Federal period.

Dream design The red-brick home is set back off of the street and boasts a front garden entered through a wrought-iron gate. It has been decorated in furnishings of both Victorian and Federal periods, with many original pieces. The confluence of the two styles helps provide a hominess and warmth appropriate for a bed-and-breakfast.

Dream move During the restoration process, Norman Finnance and his sister, Letitia Bohner, consulted several Baltimore sources for authenticity. They contacted Homewood House on the campus of the Johns Hopkins University for, among other things, accuracy of paint colors, and the Maryland Historical Society for permission to reproduce framed portraits of the original owners, Mr. and Mrs. Michael Warner.

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