April 25, 2010

Grace Turnbull House

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. turnbull laughing waters I was lucky enough to be included on a private tour of the house before the new owners start working on it. Turnbull House 001 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 Turnbull House 048 and even the smallest chapel I’ve ever seen!  There are five bedrooms and five full bathrooms.Turnbull House 002The 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.

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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.

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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!

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Turnbull House 038  Turnbull House 018

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. Turnbull House 032 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. Turnbull House 020 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.

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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.Turnbull House 022 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. Turnbull House 013 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.Turnbull House 043 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.

Turnbull House 053from the outside
Turnbull House 034 from the inside

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.

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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!

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I loved the bell tower, and was wondering when and if Grace Turnbull ever rang the bell!Turnbull House 064 Throughout the property, there were tiny details, that if they were not there, they wouldn’t be missed. Turnbull House 062 But seeing them made you realize the attention to detail that Bayard Turnbull, the architect, put into this house for his sister. Turnbull House 026 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. SP CasinoFor more information, and there’s not much, here’s an article about Grace Turnbull.


  1. Meg - thanks for posting this. I love quirky, one-off houses and it was such a treat to read about Grace Turnbull

  2. omg what an amazing house -who knew -all so close to home! LOVE the stained glass and the frosted glass pocket door too!

  3. Great post, but your header is adorable!!

  4. What a fine eye for detail you have. I was in & out of the house during the late 1980s & never felt I saw it all. Your posting & Tom's article are great.

  5. Enjoyed this article - I love reading about old homes with known history - I just posted (last week) about Florence Griswold's home in CT.

  6. Thank you for your post! What a fantastic home. I hope the new owners will appreciate its beauty as much as you do. It reminds me in many ways of a place I used to work. A private home of a woman artist donated to the Massachusetts Audubon society. Her studio was beside the main family home and was built like a chapel with all hidden wooden storage and a balcony above. She owned about 126 acres and also built a small "getaway" home in the center of her own property! She painted birds, so, would have her special "male friend" drive her around in a van and would stnad with her head out of the top birding her own property!

    Thanks again for sharing...

  7. Such a beautiful house! Thank you for introducing me to an artist I have not heard of before. She was so talented!
    I would have loved to see the house as it must have been furnished at her life time.
    I love all those build-ins!

  8. That looks great! I thought you might be interested in this event coming up in June - somebody showed it to me and we're definitely doing it, sounds fun - called Tour Dem Parks, Hon (www.tourdemparks.org). Its a bike tour through the city. Seems similar to somethings you post about - starts and end at Carrol Park with BBQ and Jazz. Just passing on the word of something fun :)

    Great blog!

  9. omg Meg, this is unbelievable. I could move here tomorrow. !

  10. I love the Turnbull house. So fascinating, so lovely. I always thought it had a medieval feel inside, what with all that dark wood and that middle hall with the balcony. Especially love the chapel and studio.

    Talked to a guy once who lives around the corner who remembered when she was still alive. Apparently she would drive out in her fancy car (I forget what kind -- sorry, not a car person) at 4 o'clock sharp every single afternoon for a spin around the city. He said she used to give out candy to all the little kids.

  11. Ye gods and little fishes, a steampunker's DREAM, this place! I seriously need to start taking pain medication before reading this blog - my heart aches more with every post. I wonder if single malt scotch would do just as well?

  12. Thanks so much for all of these photos and comments. Just discovered Grace Turnbull from a quote of hers that my mother had copied on the back of a medical form when she was sitting waiting for an appointment with me. It concerned her feelings about building a house and was taken from Chips From My Chisel, her memoir/autobiography. Now I will continue to dig around for more information about her, and hope that one day I will be able to visit this remarkable house!


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