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Chestertown show house takes design ideas from the past and adapts them to the present


Surely the best houses are like this always: spacious, sensible rooms, beautifully but not outrageously appointed, with tradition upheld but comforts aplenty for every member of the household.

As you gaze around the graceful rooms of River House, or look out across the veranda and the yard to the Chester River just beyond, it's easy to imagine it's always been this way -- for the past 300 years.

Actually, it's been just this way for less than a month, and when another month has passed, it will be something else again. But until June 30, the house, built between 1784 and 1787, is "home" to the public, as the River House Designer Showcase.

Fifteen designer firms from four states and the District of Columbia contributed to the decor of the four-level, five-bay Federal-style house. Their task was made far simpler (or far harder, depending on your point of view) by strict guidelines set out by the Historical Society of Kent County, which sponsored the showcase, and the Maryland Historical Society, which owns the house.

First, designers were "challenged" to keep decor consistent with the historical period of the house, and to incorporate original paint colors in wood trim and paneling. Darlene Housley, of Chestertown, the showcase chairman, emphasizes that the goal was not a "house museum," but an adherence to 18th century design principles "adapted for modern living."

In addition to sticking to the design guidelines, designers were asked to coordinate their plans so the house would appear to be a unified whole, rather than a series of what Ms. Housley called "disconnected spaces."

Second, to give designers a clear image on which to base their unified plans, the show house committee invented an imaginary modern family to "inhabit" the house: a two-career couple with two daughters, 6 months and 10 years old -- and a nanny. Here's what the "Statement of Design Policy" has to say about the family:

"The family recently moved to Chestertown when the wife, a descendant of the original builder of River House, joined the faculty of Washington College. Having spent her childhood summers at River House, she is thrilled to be a professor of music at the college and to occupy River House with her own family.

"Her husband is an internationally recognized economist who travels frequently. . . . They entertain frequently and are involved in the life of the town -- historic preservation, civic organizations and college functions. . . .

"Both husband and wife have inherited family art treasures and they are avid collectors of 18th century and early 19th century antiques to augment their existing collection."

Rising to the challenge

Designers certainly rose to the challenge: The result is a comfortable, livable house that happens to be very beautiful as well.

Among the unifying elements are paint used on the woodwork throughout the house, a subtle grayish-beige color called "putty"; Chinese-influenced elements, from a jar holding plants on the porch to wall paper in the master bath, sets of cloisonne figures on a mantel in the living room and a small chest in the master suite's "withdrawing room"; and Oriental and handmade rugs throughout.

Painted finishes are also used throughout the house. In the drawing room, designed by Lucie Frederick of the Winterthur Design Group, Winterthur, Del., cream walls are stenciled with subtle filigree diamond shapes in pale gold, and a larger version of the same diamond surrounds the base of the room's early 19th century crystal chandelier. This room also includes a walnut harpsichord, for the music professor lady of the house. The piece was borrowed from a local resident, who describes it as a modern interpretation of an 18th century instrument designed to be "used by ladies."

Across the main hall (where two swords and a long black cloak hanging on pegs create an 18th century aura) is the library-reception-dining room, designed by Sarah Boyer Jenkins of Chevy Chase. Here the walls are painted in panels employing Eastern Shore motifs: ships and shells, a blue crab over the door, lilacs and other local flowers, done by Thomas and Elizabeth Warnock of Warnock Studios, Washington. Antiques in this room include a 19th century English Chippendale-style double-chair-backed settee in mahogany. It is "dressed for summer" in a white slipcover.

Behind the library is the stairwell, entered from the main hall through an unusual elliptical arch that is echoed at the second floor as well.

The second floor has been designed as a master suite, with bedroom, bath, dressing room and the "withdrawing room."

The latter is one of the most famous rooms in the house, not for what's in it, but for what's no longer there. In 1926, the owner of the house, experiencing financial difficulties in the wake of a failed peach crop, sold the room's original paneling to Henry Francis du Pont, who installed it in his Delaware mansion, Winterthur.

New mortise and tenon

The paneling's not much missed in the design by Alan H. Kepner of Rhodes in Chestertown. Two notable items in the room are a round-fronted chinoiserie corner cabinet and a lacquer screen painted to look like a bookcase. Stars of the space, however, are four pieces of furniture hand-crafted for the space by Frank Rhodes, a Chestertown artisan, and based on pieces in his family collection. Mr. Rhodes' grandparents, Col. Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch, collected William and Mary, Queen Anne, Hepplewhite and Chippendale pieces. Mr. Rhodes' reproductions are faithful copies, right down to technique.

"I use mortise and tenon construction, as in the 18th century originals," Mr. Rhodes says. "All my finishes are hand-rubbed." In upholstered pieces, "We hand-tie and hand-sew all seams, and we use the original materials inside -- burlap webbing and horsehair," he says.

Pieces in the withdrawing room are a tall chest in walnut, a tea table in mahogany, and a lowboy and small desk in tiger maple -- "one of my favorite woods," Mr. Rhodes says.

The tiny dressing room has some of the most elaborate detail. Besides the original paneling, it has a reproduction cast-plaster molding at the ceiling in a pattern of floral medallions interwoven with a Greek key design. Timothy McDonough, of TM Designs in Great Falls, Va., gave the walls a rich, hand-rubbed finish in

pale yellow.

The master bedroom has one paneled wall -- which includes elaborate crosseted mahogany trim around a fireplace and an arched niche at the front of the room. Designer C. Dudley Brown of Washington gave the walls a rosy strie-painted finish and installed a four-poster bed in tiger maple, from Gaines McHale Antiques of Baltimore.

There are more painted finishes upstairs, on the children's floor. The nursery, by Maureen A. Daly of Bethesda includes nursery-rhyme figures cavorting on the walls (Humpty-Dumpty, however, is about to fall off the molding of a settlement-skewed doorway), a ceiling painted with a dawn-to-dark sky, and a wonderful painting of Mother Goose over the fireplace. The paintings were done by Roswitha Houghton.

The nanny's room, next door, designed by Beverly Broun McClinton of Beverly Broun Interiors, Alexandria, Va., has hand-painted stripes that combine the Prussian blue and bright medium green colors actually found in the house.

Across the hall, the young lady's bedroom, by Katherine Lee of Clayton, Del., has a needlepoint rug with motifs of a maiden and a unicorn. A Celtic harp, circa 1920, indicates that the lady of the house takes after her musical mother.

An icebox from a pub

The ground floor of the house, which originally housed two kitchens, now includes a family room by Linda Daly of Ivyland, Pa., in a Jacobean motif -- crewel-work-style designs around the windows and a painted chest to hide the television, by artist Carol Nagel -- and a kitchen, pantry and morning room by Gerry Wilson of the Decorating Den, Cambridge.

The kitchen holds one of the house's more intriguing antiques: a round wooden "icebox," built rather like a barrel with straight sides. A round lid lifts off for the ice; in the compartment below, round shelves revolve so nothing gets lost at the back. The piece came from a pub in Canada.

The kitchen sink, placed in an open counter separating it from the morning room, has one of the best views in the house, out the back door, down a brick path and over the low wall to the river, where, on one recent morning, sailboats were passing.

It was a scene probably not much different from what might have been seen by a pantry maid 300 years ago, looking up briefly from her chores. The modern family may be imaginary, but the house is very much alive.


River House Designer Showcase, presented by the Historical Society of Kent County, will be open until June 30. Hours are daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. All tickets are $10; group tours are available. Proceeds will be used to publish an architectural history of Kent County. The house is on Water Street, just north of the Chester River bridge; visitors should follow signs to the parking lot and ride a shuttle bus back to the house. For more information, call (410) 778-3499.

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