Few people have heard of Maryland artist, Grace Turnbull, but she was a force in art for much of the 20th century. From the 1920’s until her death in the mid-1970s, she lived in a house that her brother, an architect, had designed and built for her. After her death, the house was donated to the Maryland Historical Society for use as a museum of her art, but was sold a few years ago. However, it’s essentially been empty since her death. I was lucky enough to be included on a private tour of the house before the new owners start working on it. The house is very personal, having been designed by the artist’s brother specifically for her as a house, studio and gallery. It’s got all sorts of nooks and crannies, secret closets, storage, porches, balconies and even the smallest chapel I’ve ever seen! There are five bedrooms and five full bathrooms.The style of the house could be described as a cross between Mission and Spanish, but that is not really specific. Because it was a one-off, and so personally designed, she had what she wanted. Regardless, it does not fit into the posh neighbourhood where it sits amongst Tudors, Georgians and other massive piles.
One of the most interesting things about the house is that three of the four corners have totem poles that Turnbull carved. They are general religious motifs, featuring Mother and Child, the Exodus from Egypt and St. Francis and the Birds.
The house is a rabbit-warren of rooms, with the centerpiece being a two-story gallery surrounded by a balcony. All of the walls are wood, which make the house quite dark – although it didn’t help that it was an overcast day.
As you enter the house, there is a dining room to the left and a small bedroom and tiny bathroom to the right. All of the baths are identical, with white subway tile on the walls, porcelain fixtures and tiled floors. Only one of the baths had a clawfoot tub and they all had the smallest radiators I’d ever seen!
There are bookcases lining every wall and the storage in the house was not to be believed! There were pantries, packing rooms, shelved closets, regular closets and more! There were two of these units, one on the main floor and one on the second floor. Oddly enough, one of my favourite rooms was the kitchen! It had the most amazing built-in cabinet, sort of like a Welsh Dresser or a hutch. It was full of storage below and glass-fronted cabinets above. The best part about it was the tiny clock on the right side of it. Built in and just one of the little details that made this house so unique and special.
The other piece I loved in the kitchen was the butlers call station. As someone on one of the rooms rang for the servants, the arrow on the call station would point to the room. The house where I was raised had mother-of-pearl buzzers in all of the rooms, and a place for one under the dining room table. The stairway to the second floor was fascinating. Although it was a curved staircase, it didn’t follow the conventional pattern. Each of the lower steps was cut differently and the staircase was completely enclosed. The bedrooms were nothing special, but each had a transom above the door to let the air flow through the central gallery and into the rooms. The doors in the house were very rustic, some, like the one below had words carved into them. One of bedrooms doubled as the artist’s studio, with a huge skylight. The house was surrounded by a low roofline, and in the studio room, the roofing had been replaced by glass for additional light.
The studio also had a shade that could be manouevered to control the light. It was rigged so that by pulling a cord and tying it off , you could raise and lower the shade.
Adjacent to the house, there was a small studio/garage/chapel. Again, a huge skylight and high ceiling, as well as a roof patio and a bell tower!
I loved the bell tower, and was wondering when and if Grace Turnbull ever rang the bell! Throughout the property, there were tiny details, that if they were not there, they wouldn’t be missed. But seeing them made you realize the attention to detail that Bayard Turnbull, the architect, put into this house for his sister. As an interesting story about how all things in Baltimore are related, the Turnbull’s summer house was called LaPaix, and it was there that F. Scott Fitzgerald lived, and wrote “Tender is the Night” while his wife, Zelda was in residence at Sheppard Pratt, a private mental hospital. For more information, and there’s not much, here’s an article about Grace Turnbull.