Tour of Wardour neighborhood kicks off annual House & Garden Pilgrimage

From the dentils that punctuate the roofline to the wide staircase leading upstairs, the home of Gretchen and A. Denis Clift is a classic.

And it's in an Annapolis community where architecture is distinctive, gardens are gracious and century-old trees shade winding streets.

The house offers views of the Severn River through original windows of rippled glass and looks over sections of Wardour. Even though the neighborhood is in the city of Annapolis, it feels anything but urban.

"This is a big old house," said Gretchen Clift, extending her arms as she stood in the foyer where hundreds of people are expected to visit as part of the upcoming Maryland House & Garden Pilgrimage tour.

Particularly striking are the home's numerous windows, which bring so much light inside that it's bright without a single bulb turned on. Many of the windows contain glass that dates to the home's construction in the early 1900s.

"In the living room, there are more than 400 panes of leaded glass, and they are the original panes," Denis Clift said.

A tour of the community on Saturday, April 20, is the kickoff for the statewide pilgrimage tour this spring. Nine homes and gardens in the peninsula neighborhood of Wardour are being featured, the Clifts' home among them.

The one-mile walking tour offers a different perspective on a community designed by renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. The tour puts the rolling terrain, winding roads and tall trees of the neighborhood on display along with the private properties, said Eileen Leahy, tour chair.

"We want to show the diversity of the community in terms of its architecture and gardens," Leahy said. "This will be nice, because people will be able to look at the houses as part of a community."

The neighborhood was designed at the time of the City Beautiful movement in urban planning, which took hold around 1900. The idea, said Ginny Vrobsky of Annapolis, who has researched and written about the area, was that the quality of life in cities would be enhanced by creating livable, beautiful surroundings.

In 1884, two sisters inherited the 225 acres that were later developed into West Annapolis and the smaller community of Wardour. One contacted Olmsted. She told him in 1907 that she had a breathtaking tract of land and she wanted him to see and design a neighborhood, according to Vrobsky.

What resulted were streets curved around the contours of odd-shaped lots that reflected the rolling hills and left many of the mature trees standing.

The Clifts' home is one of the more historic ones, Leahy said, dating to 1911.

"The builder was an architect, and he built this as his dream home," said Denis Clift, who is vice president for planning and operations at the U.S. Naval Institute.

That architect was Philip Benson Cooper — son of Philip Henry Cooper, Naval Academy superintendent from 1894 to 1898. Cooper was known locally for his work as an inspecting architect on Bancroft Hall, the academy's dorm, as well as the portico of the State House addition and other structures in the city, according to tour information.

When the Clifts moved into the house in 1972, the building's New England influence had already seen some renovation. And though the exterior's original wood shingles were in good condition, the interior needed substantial work.

The first floor's plaster walls "were crumbling," so the couple repaired them and put up drywall, Denis Clift said. They did as much of the work themselves as they could, as they raised their two sons.

Ceilings are 11 feet high on the first floor, not quite as high on the two upper floors. The high ceilings mean each flight is at least 17 steps.

"When we moved in, we all got leg aches," Gretchen Clift said.

The main stairwell extends 36 feet, its handrail tethered to the steps by decorative spindles.

"Gretchen, she sat down and sanded every one of those spindles," Denis Clift recalled.

They also refinished the original Georgia pine floors.

In the 1990s, the couple extended the kitchen and dining room, adding a veranda that runs more than 60 feet across the back of the house. It overlooks a small pond and yard, and wildlife are drawn to the trees, flowers, birdbaths and feeders.

For the tour, homes of varying vintages and designs are included, from single-story dwellings to expansive houses; and landscaping that varies from native trees to carefully manicured gardens.

The tour, which guides visitors over the neighborhood's pedestrian bridge to cross the old Baltimore and Annapolis Railroad right-of-way, also shows a home owned by St. John's College for its president, replete with a garden house.

At four of the residences, only gardens will open, but they promise to be worth the walk as well: a Japanese garden, two with sculptures and another with a pond.

If you go

Proceeds from the annual House & Garden Pilgrimage benefit architectural preservation and restoration in Maryland, and the Wardour tour will specifically aid the Charles Carroll House and Gardens.

The tour will be Saturday, April 20, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Tickets, registration and tour information is available at Ticket price for Wardour is $30 for advance purchase on website; $35 on tour day at Old Crossing Road and Giddings Avenue, Wardour Drive and Melvin Avenue and at the Park Place garage.