Back to His Roots; Washington designer Joseph Paul Davis found his dream home on the Eastern Shore -- it just needed a little work; FOCUS ON DESIGN


This is a story about a guy, his dog, his friends, and his 200-person Christmas Eve buffets, but mostly it's about the 18th-century Eastern Shore house he bought after crawling through a window to get the door open for his real estate agent.

When he got to the door, the guy, Joseph Paul Davis, a Washington interior designer, discovered there was no knob on the inside, so he went back to the window and stuck his head out. "This is the house," Davis told the agent. "Write up the contract."

Thirteen days later he owned it.

That was eight years ago, and for most of that time, the house has been a work in progress. Despite good -- even distinguished -- bones, the house had been not been well kept up in recent years. The property, on a gorgeous creek-side site in Dorchester County, was grown over with weeds and shrubs and neglected trees. What was most visible from the house's tiny kitchen was not the serene creek, with ducks and geese and swans and canoes and skiffs, but a 2,000-gallon orange oil tank.

Davis' first thought about the house was, "It's OK, we'll just paint it in country colors, it'll be cute."

Here's what he's actually done to the property: Removed an inappropriate Victorian gable on the front, removed the "yucky" vinyl siding, changed the use of some rooms, added moldings, subtracted a fireplace, added a new kitchen-family room overlooking a new brick terrace, replaced all the windows, re-landscaped, opened the house to the water with windows and French doors, and cleared the waterfront so it looks like a scene from the English countryside.

"Basically it's a new house within an old house," he says.

Davis, 40, has a lifelong association with the Eastern Shore. "My family has been here since the Revolution," he says, "basically in farming and agriculture." By 1942, however, his grandfather, a dairy farmer still reeling financially from the Depression, sold the family property. Davis, whose business, Joseph Paul Davis Interiors, has offices in Washington and London, couldn't wait to get back.

"I am the quintessential Marylander," he says. "I like crabs, I like brackish water." He grew up plying skiffs and canoes among the creeks, and still gets to church on Sunday, at the circa 1640 Old Trinity Episcopal, by boat.

When he isn't commuting, Davis lives in Washington with his dog, a Weimaraner named Hunter (sometimes called Hunny).

Hunter, who is 40 months old and big as a small pony, thinks he is a lapdog. He works his way into every conversation, follows every foot of the way on a tour of the house. He has soulful eyes and a beautiful head, and the iridescent sheen of his taupe coat matches almost exactly the color of the carpet Davis installed on the front and back stairs and hallways.

Hunter was not the inspiration, but, after a couple of experiments, Davis turned conventional wisdom about decorating Colonial houses -- rich, dark colors, Oriental rugs, pure period furniture -- on its ear.

"I'm not a person who wants to live with a lot of color around me all the time," Davis says. The palette that prevails, especially in the public rooms on the first floor, is beige and white, with a little cafe au lait on the downstairs molding. The wide-board floors in the living room and small trophy room, on either side of the main stairs, are painted white; in the dining room, next to the trophy room, the narrower floorboards (from an 1840s addition) are painted in a white-and-beige diagonal checkerboard.

Upstairs, neutrals prevail in the hallways, but there's a little color in the guest rooms -- a touch of red in one, a nautical blue in the other.

Davis' bedroom, however, is painted yellow, which he says is glorious to wake up to when the sun is shining through the east-facing windows.

He gutted a cramped kitchen and expanded it to a kitchen-plus-family room, and here the pale palette continues, from a combed checkerboard faux finish wallpaper in pale tan, to the driftwood-stained heart-pine new floor. But the added windows at both ends of the room make still lifes, and sometimes moving pictures, of the lawns and the water.

When he first moved in, Davis had more of a countrified look in mind, and he painted the dining room a light acid green. But eventually he found the color wearing. Now the room is covered in cool white and beige stripes.

"My favorite thing I've done to this house is to blanch it," he says, "which goes against the nature of a Colonial house."

However, besides being calming and light-enhancing, the pale colors allow Davis' furniture, mostly American and English antiques from the late 18th to the early 19th century, to glow. He also has some newer pieces: A console in the dining room is the prototype of a piece he designed for Niermann Weeks, the Annapolis company that makes new furniture inspired by old.

Davis' decision to lighten up the house was not done without some opposition. When he told a painter to paint the banister, steps and balusters of the main staircase white, the man objected. "I'm not painting that banister," he said. "It's mahogany." Replied Davis: "It'll still be mahogany, it'll just be white."

But there's been no problem with his second-favorite decision: To move (and bury) that ugly oil tank, and use the space between the two wings of the house for a brick terrace, part of it covered by a loggia.

Davis' idea is that places like this one are for friends and family. "I entertain here on an intimate scale," he says. In places like Washington or New York, he says, entertaining usually means going out to dinner. "And going out to dinner is all about rushing. Here people come on Friday for the weekend. Breakfast is on the porch."

Not all Davis' entertaining is on so modest a scale: He has a big, formal, traditional Thanksgiving dinner, a Christmas Eve buffet for 200, and a formal Easter dinner. His oblong dining room table, a George III piece, is 142 inches long "and seats 14 really comfortably," he says.

Over the dining table is the only "over the top" item in the understated house: an elaborate 1860 French crystal chandelier on which some of the decorative glass is amethyst or amber, and some slightly smoky.

"It's completely inappropriate for this house," Davis says, "but it's one of those things that, as a decorator, I love to put into a house -- one of those wonderful jewels that really makes a room pop."

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