ST. HELENA'S ISLAND,MD. -- No man is an island, but every man wants one.
At least that's what Dr. Charles Iliff, a retired Johns Hopkins University eye surgeon and professor, is banking on.
Iliff, 76, who achieved one of his dreams when he bought part of this Severn River island 17 years ago, is ready to sell out for a mere $2.75 million.
For nearly a year, Iliff lived on the heavily wooded island six miles north of Annapolis, commuting by boat and car to work in Baltimore. But now that he is an older man who has had heart surgery, he decided to sell. The property is being marketed as a seasonal retreat, a bucolic summer place for some multimillionaire to buy.
"We'd like to market it as Annapolis' Newport, like the Vanderbilts' up there," said real estate agent Anthony Chandler. "It should be a summer house for someone to come and park his 200-foot yacht."
Anne Arundel County has other private islands that have become retreats for the rich and famous, most notably Gibson, at the mouth of the Magothy River. Property owners can reach Gibson by bridge, and there are roads, but the entire island is off-limits to the public.
On St. Helena, there are no roads, only paths that link the three island homes and several outbuildings. In the woods rests the island's only motor vehicle, an out-of-commission circa 1950 Dodge, covered with ivy.
For now, there are no people here, just empty buildings.
At the beginning of the Great Depression, a Baltimore lawyer and life insurance executive named Paul M. Burnett built a brick mansion on the 15-acre island.
The house is a replica of Homewood, built in 1809 by Declaration of Independence signer Charles Carroll for his son and now located on the campus of Johns Hopkins University.
It features a square two-story central section flanked by narrow one-story wings and outbuildings. The house has several chandeliers, four bedrooms, four baths and two servants' bedrooms.
It is entered through Doric columns.
The property is dotted with pink and white dogwoods and dozens of azalea bushes.
Burnett indulged his Napoleonic fantasy by naming the place after the island off the African coast where the French emperor lived in exile, and by building brick fences, sentry boxes and gateways with cannon balls mounted on top.
He also constructed a 30-foot water tower with a deck overlooking the river, a brick-enclosed park for miniature pet deer imported for islanders' amusement, a pond for diamondback turtles and a two-room log "playhouse."
Tony Iliff, 39, the doctor's second youngest child, said, "Everytime I go up there, it amazes me that somebody built that little kingdom. You expect to see some leprechauns jumping out."
Burnett left enduring mysteries by building into the mansion a series of safes, including a safe within a safe, and a secret compartment in a closet.
He sold the island in the 1940s to Eugene J.C. Raney, a beer distributor and bowling alley owner from Kensington, who leased one of the island buildings to Four Corners restaurant owner John Emory. The building became a casino with slot machines that were seized in a 1951 police raid.
The island was subdivided and sold again in 1956 to Robert Merrick, Stedman Prescott Jr. and Eva Gude Brandt.
Merrick, the late board chairman of Equitable Trust, bought the middle seven acres, containing a large white frame house, the gambling casino and a second water tower. The property belongs to his estate. Brandt, of Annapolis, bought 1.75 acres with a house, which she still owns.
Prescott, a Montgomery County circuit judge who wound up on the Maryland Court of Appeals, bought the mansion.
During the winter of 1961, when the river froze over, the judge commuted to work by helicopter.
When Prescott died, Charles Iliff bought the mansion and 6.2 acres for about $100,000 and invested $200,000 in improvements.
When he wasn't living there full time, Iliff held yachting parties on the island. Another son, Nicholas, also an eye doctor, was married there in 1972.
Tony Iliff is the island tour guide, leaving the family's 140-acre horse farm for a few hours recently to take visitors upriver to a private dock at the island's north end.
He steered an 18-foot powerboat to the pier, climbed the path to the house and unlocked the door to the musty, marble-tiled entranceway.
A statue of Napoleon on horseback graces a fireplace mantel in the study. An attic above the central portion still contains the Prescott law library, along with his embossed leather briefcase, his 1914 Montgomery County high school diploma and old Life and National Geographic magazines.
In the basement, a door leads to a large vault. Inside was another vault, and inside that, two more. "Mysteries," Tony Iliff said.
The property went on the market two years ago for $1.25 million. Nobody bit. The Iliffs more than doubled the price recently, partly to reflect the increased values of waterfront property under new state building limits imposed along the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.
The other reason is, as Tony Iliff puts it, "kind of crazy. When we listed it for $1.25 million, people who have that kind of money think it's a shack. They say, 'What's wrong with it?' "
That there are buyers raising such questions astonishes Iliff, but real estate brokers of prime waterfront property say times have changed. "You don't talk much when you talk a million dollars, really," said Douglas Hanks, who sells real estate across the Chesapeake Bay.
The $2.75 million price tag has generated more interest, at least from real estate agents, said Tony Iliff, who wears cowboy hats and western shirts.
With the metropolitan areas spreading outward, development is occurring near their horse farm, but living on the island was great, the retired doctor said, "away from all the problems of people building condos . . . . "