Earl and Carol Ravenal lived in Washington for 18 years before they ventured across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. When they did, they were so taken with the charm of the countryside and the beauty of the waterfront that they soon began house-hunting for a special getaway place. After three Saturday excursions, they purchased a plantation-like house in Talbot County, Maryland. They call it "The Wilderness."
The name scarcely implies the civility and elegance that is evident in a visit to this 250-acre waterfront farm near Trappe, Md. It is everything one might imagine of an established Eastern Shore manor. One section (the more modest in size) was built in 1686. The newer part of the house dates to the 1790s. Along the way, an elegant barn went up on the property along with three dependencies (or outbuildings), a pool and a tennis court in the middle of a wildflower meadow.
A long tree-lined drive leads to the back of the house from the main road. The front of the house faces the Choptank River. A 400-foot dock, built by a previous owner who was president of the New York Yacht Club, leads to the water.
Each year there is a new project -- 200 more feet of bulkheading to stabilize the shore, shingles for one additional portion of the barn or the current reforestation of parts of the property and the transformation of portions into a wildlife preserve.
Although the estate may sound opulent, the house itself is classic simplicity -- intentionally so. The couple spent the first three years they owned the house (1979 to 1982) restoring the interior. Although the house was not "derelict" when they bought it, said Carol Ravenal, the interiors needed immediate attention. The beautiful Georgia pine floors had been covered by wall-to-wall carpeting; white and gold wallpaper in many of the rooms was being "held up by filing cabinets," Ravenal said. Once-large rooms had been cut up into smaller rooms; some ceilings needed to be replaced.
The Ravenals knew what they were about. Many years earlier, they had restored a Colonial house in Rhode Island. Carol Ravenal, a painter, wrote her PhD thesis at the Fogg Museum at Harvard University on Colonial architecture. And while the house quickly became their major project together, it was Earl Ravenal's initiative that got them involved in it. Carol Ravenal admits that when she first contemplated the work that would be required, she was less enthusiastic. Today, however, she will readily tell a visitor that she has more photographs of the house than she does of her own children.
The Wilderness came with more than architectural grandeur and a wealth of outbuildings. It also had a rich folklore: One of its owners was a flamboyant man named William Speers who, rumor had it, sent two Rolls-Royces to the house -- one for the family and one for the servants. The Ravenals were also enthused about the house's ghost who, some say, still stalks there.
According to the lore, one of the daughters of a previous owner in the early 19th century had married a young man against her father's wishes. The father had locked her up, forbidding her to join her lover. By the time the lover returned to the farm to take her away, she had died. It is said that those who slept in that bedroom were awakened by her light kiss.
Carol Ravenal has never encountered the young woman, but her daughter Cornelia met a less friendly ghost shortly after the house was restored. In the middle of the night, Cornelia shrieked; a guest rushed to her aid to find that a rocker in her room had been put on top of her. A man, Cornelia said, had been standing in her room, looking at her. The description of the man matched that of William Speers -- a ghost no one had heard from before or has heard from since.
Cornelia refuses to sleep in that bedroom.
As much as the Ravenals were challenged by the prospect of restoring this simple 17th- and 18th-century home, they also wanted to satisfy their contemporary tastes and give the house an easy simplicity. The waterfront porch was enclosed. The extraneous trim that had been added over the decades was removed, and the woodwork was painted in rich shades of stone blue, salmon and tan. "I almost feel it to be somewhat Shakerlike in its simplicity," says Carol Ravenal, who spent a great deal of time working through the colors in the house and figuring out how space would best be arranged to accommodate the needs of her family (daughters Cornelia and Rebecca and son John). Two upstairs bedrooms in the newer section of the home were transformed into one light-filled studio where Ravenal can paint. Earl and Carol each has a study. Three bedrooms are on the second floor, and two are on the third floor -- each with a simple, brightly colored quilt on the bed.
While the house has a great deal of architectural charm, two stunning attributes were installed in the house in the early 20th century. In Carol Ravenal's study is a 1740 hand-carved mantel by English artisan and woodcarver Grinnling Gibbons. (Other of Gibbons' more ornate mantels were on exhibit in the "Treasure Houses of Great Britain" show at the National Gallery of Art.) In Earl Ravenal's study is a 1780 mantel by another English architect and artisan, Robert Adams. These two pieces are so important that for architectural historians it is almost as though the house came with the two fireplaces rather than the other way around.
The barn is still in the process of being restored, and again Carol Ravenal's rich sense of color is playing a role in the restoration. Because the barn was built on the estate during the Victorian era, Ravenal has religiously tried to match its shade of white to the white so popular to Victorians -- a brighter, "whiter white" than that of the Colonial era. For the barn's trim, she selected red to go around the green doors and windows on one side of the barn and green trim to go around red doors on the other side of the barn. At the ends of the barn, where the wood of the doors is set on a diagonal, Ravenal had each strip of wood painted, alternating red with green. It is her same sense of color that demanded that the field around the tennis court be planted with wildflowers so that when the couple and their frequent guests play tennis, they are surrounded by brightly colored poppies.
As a painter, Ravenal is particularly sensitive to the light at the farm. Many of her more recent works have been painted as she gazed out over the Choptank River. "The sunsets -- they're like Gene Davis paintings on the water," says Ravenal. "My idea of heaven," she says, is to spend Saturday listening to Garrison Keillor and paint.
Would she and her husband ever retire to the farm? "No, when you're here, you're in tune with nature," she says wistfully, "but you don't have the irritations and distractions of the city that keep you stimulated in a different way."
These days the Ravenals are busy planning their next project -- the dedication of whole sections of the farm as a wildlife preserve so they can share "the wildnerness, the animals of the wild -- as well as their friends."