St. Michaels Estate


If you’ve ever spent time on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, you know it’s a special place. A place where some of America’s oldest trading settlements, colonial era farms, and quaint waterfront villages combine with the undeniable beauty of the Chesapeake Bay to create an atmosphere unlike any other. Of course, this quality was part of the draw for Tom and Alice Blair when they began looking for waterfront property in Talbot County, but as Tom admits, “the real attraction was the individuals of the Eastern Shore. Alice and I have always considered ourselves fortunate to be able to spend time in Talbot County . . . the people of the Eastern Shore are gracious and genuine, with little time for pretension.”

And so, the qualities of grace and authenticity are at the heart of defining every aspect of designing, renovating, and recreating the grounds, house, and outbuildings of this Eastern Shore estate. As grace and authenticity define the atmosphere, family defines its reason for being. “We wanted to create a home that could accommodate our 15 active grandchildren, all of whom live within an hour and a half drive of St. Michaels,” says Tom.

At first, the Blairs were just looking for a house to buy–something on the water, with plenty of land for the grandkids. What they found came close, but still fell short of their ideal. “The house had excellent bones. . . large rooms and high ceilings with every major room overlooking the Miles River. Initially, we thought a quick do-over of the kitchen was all that we would undertake,” says Tom.

But as is often the case during the planning stage of a renovation, the scope of the project grew to include bathrooms, bedrooms, a library, and a guesthouse. “As one of my friends told me after the home renovations were complete, it would have been much more economical to merely have bought a half dozen jet skis and let the kids sleep in tents,” says Tom.

In lieu of tents dotting the 15-acre waterfront environment, the Blairs consulted Chapel Valley Landscape to design and manage a complete landscape makeover. When landscape architect Eric Bean first visited the property, he found “beautiful river views and huge potential for the landscape held back by poor drainage/standing water throughout the site.” Additionally, exisiting trees, plants, paths, and patios were poorly located and in decline or disrepair.

The rear elevation of the house was gretly transformed with addition of numerous windows during renovation.

The rear elevation of the house was gretly transformed with addition of numerous windows during renovation.

Working to fulfill the Blairs’ request for sweeping lawns that would lead to the main house along with such practical requirements as solving the drainage problems, Bean joined a team that included architect Bruce Hutchinson, of Hutchinson + Associates, builder Ted Visnic, of Visnic Homes, and interior designer Gerald Smith, of G. L. Smith Associates.

Transforming the landscape literally left no stone unturned. Work included screen plantings to block unwanted views, demolition and replacement of the existing pool and pool area, an improved entrance and driveway, grading and drainage solutions, restoration of the tidal pond, a landscape redesign, and new paths, walkways, sidewalks, and exterior stairs.

“The re-envisioned landscape creates distinct areas, comfortable transitions, and enhanced views,” says Bean. “Roses are a favorite of the Blairs and are incorporated throughout the landscape but especially in the rose garden, which creates a quiet, contemplative space connecting the pool area, caretaker’s cottage, front lawn, and tidal pond.” Such rose varieties as ‘Fairy Meidiland,’ ‘Ruby Meidiland,’ ‘Carefree Sunshine,’ ‘Carefree Delight,’ and ‘Carefree Wonder’ provide splashes of pink, scarlet, and yellow throughout the landscape.

Other prominently-featured plants include varieties of maple and magnolia and such coastal favorites as pink muhlygrass and blue switchgrass. Central to the landscape, however, is art and architecture. Sculpture is positioned side-by-side with flowers, shrubs, and an imagined church ruin, which seems as if it were original to the property centuries ago.

Designed by Tom Blair and constructed by Chapel Valley, the ruin was inspired by ruins in Blair’s native England. Antique furniture, statuary, and architectural elements aged on site were combined with mature plant material transplanted from elsewhere on the property to complete the vision. A garden of climbing roses, boxwoods, and Boston ivy help create the impression of a church abandoned hundreds of years ago. Far from ornamental, though, the ruin is a destination within the property, and has even been used for a family wedding. “We anticipate additional weddings and christenings,” says Blair, and jokes, “but we haven’t turned the page to the funeral chapter as of yet.”

As the landscaping evolved, Visnic and Hutchinson collaborated with the Blairs to renovate the main house and outbuildings. To start, the builder and architect conducted an initial site assessment. “The general shape of the existing house was good, but the details weren’t,” says Hutchinson.

“One of the first priorities of the renovation,” continues Hutchinson, “was to open up the rear of the house to the water views and create a view from the front entry through to the rear foyer.” Along with renovating most of the existing house–including the kitchen, master suite, and mudroom–a second phase of the project called for rebuilding an existing barn and designing a new guesthouse to take the place of a poorly sited garage.

The barn, located to the right of the main house, is located just a few feet from the tidal pond and ties into the pool area. “It was probably built in the ‘30s,” says Visnic, “and was in bad shape—rotted wood, full of snakes. It had to be taken down to the foundation.” The reconstructed building became a garage and caretaker’s house with a roof to match the main house, an added kitchenette, and a faux chimney that wraps around the entry door.

The addition that evolved during the renovation process consists of a new garage with an office above it, a library, sunroom, tea room, and a breezeway connector between the main house and the guest house. “Stylistically—we kept the look of the front façade of the main house for all of the structures,” says Hutchinson.

Arranged according to an informal Georgian plan, symmetry comes from the revised entrance and the two flanking outbuildings symmetrically placed. “Even though the buildings look different, the symmetry creates cohesiveness,” says Hutchinson.

When renovation projects evolve to include an addition, a conversation between old and new quickly develops. Architectural details in the addition inspired improvements to the renovation and the curved back wall of the renovated sunroom inspired design changes in the addition with the creation of another radial room that would become “the sunset bar.”

The open, two-level library was designed to accomodate a full-size replica WWII fighter plane.

The open, two-level library was designed to accomodate a full-size replica WWII fighter plane.

The most significant characteristic of the interior architecture and construction, however, hangs from the ceiling. In the library, a World War II fighter plane replica is suspended upside down. “We challenged our truss engineer to write a prescription for hanging it,” says Visnic, “then we doubled it and consulted with a pilot to hang the plane.”

With Tom focused on minor details like hanging an airplane, the interior décor became his wife, Alice’s pursuit. To create a traditional look that functions with casual aplomb, the Blairs solicited the help of Gerald Smith. To begin, the interior designer visited them at their primary home to see how they live and extrapolate their tastes and sense of style. “For the most part,” says Smith, “the Blairs gave me a lot of leeway—their guidelines were implicit. They are a very close-knit family, and this house would function as a country getaway for large family gatherings. It needed relaxed, comfortable, durable furnishings that would stand up well to visits from a large multigenerational family.”

Of course, comfortable and relaxed need not mean casual. Traditional furnishings and patterns define the décor. As with the landscape, art and sculpture factored prominently into Smith’s selections. Furnishings, rugs, and window treatments—everything down to bed and bath appointments—were chosen to complement the Blairs’ personal collections of art, sculpture, and accessories. “They had the major [art] statements,” says Smith, “and I helped with filling in—etchings, collections of botanicals, collections of shells.”

What makes the home feel lived in is the Blairs’ personality, which comes out through their collections and is echoed through the broad strokes of the décor. Because the architecture is based on a traditional style, the interior design needed to stay classic. Still, Smith reflects, “The house is a country waterfront retreat, so it is important that the décor be elegant and traditional yet accessible, inviting, and inclusive—like the family itself.”

To create a relaxed atmosphere, Smith used plush chenilles and velvets for much of the seating. “These are not only soft to the touch, they provide visual depth, which translates to warmth and coziness,” he says. The overall color scheme also helps reinforce the home’s tranquil vibe. Botanical colors such as celadon, apricot, and sage combine with soft whites and creams. In the library, Smith employs a richer, more masculine palette of burgundy, gold, and forest green to balance the mahogany paneling and built-ins, not to mention the suspended airplane.

And as the home was established with a sense of family, the family itself is developing a sense of the local community. For the Blairs, a main draw of the Eastern Shore was the people. Through the process of building their waterfront getaway, the Blairs got more than just a beautiful home. “Ted [Visinic] drew on local contractors to perform most of the work,” says Blair. “With the exception of them disappearing during deer hunting season and the opening of duck hunting season,” Blair says with a grin, “these tradesmen were an absolute pleasure to work with, and Alice and I count several of them as our friends.”

Dennis Hockman is the Editor of Chesapeake Home + Living.

Chapel Valley Landscape: or 410-442-2310
G. L. Smith Associates: 202-333-8603
Hutchinson + Associates: or 301-770-9680
Visnic Homes: or 301-309-6470