Investment in Historic Worsell Manor Pays Returns in Charm
Warwick, Md., mansion was a favorite of George Washington.
Photograph by John Lewis
Worsell Manor was a favorite destination of George Washington, who, indeed, slept there in the mid-1700s, chronicling nine visits to the Georgian-style manse in his diaries.
Any vestiges of its former glory were hidden beneath a tangle of vines and shrubs in 2011, when Barbara McGuirk looked at the property on a rural road outside Warwick, Md.
She was looking for acreage near their former home in Middletown, where her husband, Scott Millar, could hunt.
“I never dreamed there was a house because it was so overgrown you couldn’t see it from the road,” she recalls.
The property was in foreclosure and had been vacant for 12 years. McGuirk arranged for a tour and the couple picked their way through dust and debris, taking care not to fall through holes in the kitchen floor.
They emerged elated, certain they could restore the house.
“If someone didn’t take it on, this wonderful building would continue to deteriorate and, eventually, be torn down,” McGuirk says.
Fortuitously, many fine details of the home survived, including a gracious central staircase, stately moldings, nine fireplaces and built-in cupboards with traditional butterfly shelves that are arched to look like wings.
“We were very lucky that so many features of the house were intact,” Millar says.
Reinventing the Manor
Although the couple was intent on bringing back Worsell Manor, they didn’t plan to live on the estate full time.
To justify the expanse and expense of the restoration, they had to come up with a strategy in which the property would generate income.
Their solution was to create a venue for weddings and other activities. The house would provide an intimate setting for small events, as well as accommodations for overnight guests. An idle dairy barn would be revitalized, reborn as a concert hall and center for larger receptions.
McGuirk is a surgeon and an infertility specialist at Reproductive Associates of Delaware in Newark. Millar is a systems engineer, who works with the Federal Aviation Administration on the Next Generation Air Transportation System.
Despite the couple’s tenuous ties to the hospitality industry—she worked her way through college at a resort in the Poconos, he was a lifeguard—they dived in.
“We both come from big families,” McGuirk says. “We are used to multitasking.”
Photographs by John Lewis
Into the 21st century
In the 17th century, when Worsell Manor was built from locally produced brick and timber, the house was heated with fireplaces.
The new owners relined the flues, although these days the fireplaces are a source of ambiance rather than heat. Climate control is provided by a state-of-the-art geothermal system.
“We wanted to stay true to the house, yet make it comfortable for people,” Millar says.
They hired Scott Mackie of North East, Md., to serve as the general contractor. He assembled a swarm of plaster artisans, who worked on stilts to renew cracked and crumbling interior walls.
“Several contractors suggested we just sheetrock the whole house,” McGuirk says. “But if we had done that we would have lost the detail in these wonderful moldings.”
In researching Worsell Manor, the new owners gleaned abundant information from a pamphlet about the estate written by Alfred Norton Phillips Jr., grandson of the chemist who patented Phillips Milk of Magnesia.
Phillips bought the manor in 1937, restored the house and operated a dairy farm on the surrounding acreage.
His rotary pencil sharpener is still mounted on the wall in his office, next to the spot where his desk stood. His gun racks
remain in place.
But now the office is an intimate tavern room with an opulently carved French bar made in Brittany that the new owners discovered at Gatsby’s Collection, a seller of antiques and architectural elements in St. Michaels, Md.
“The carvings of the boating scenes really spoke to me because I love the water,” Millar says.
Because the former kitchen was in ruins, the couple started from scratch. It’s the only room in which the homeowners altered the original floor plan, expanding a dark, cramped space into a large, open kitchen with views of the grounds.
“We hold cooking classes here, so it had to be big enough for 14 or so people to gather comfortably,” McGuirk says. “At a class on Colonial bread making, we learned that they would squeeze the grapes that grow outside the kitchen to get yeast for the bread.”
In addition to the original brick bread oven, the kitchen is outfitted with professional-style appliances and a large island for demonstrations. Millar found a whimsical, vividly colored acrylic painting of four cooks serving casseroles at Smyrna Fire Hall by artist Nancy Butler.
The wide-planked floor was salvaged from the hayloft in the barn and re-laid in the kitchen.
“Because the wood is so old, it’s petrified,” McGuirk says. “The guys who cut it went through saw blades like crazy.”
To make room for a powder room, workers punched through an exterior wall in the kitchen and into a jot of a garden shed, retaining the brick wall and rustic feel of the shed.
“It’s the perfect size and the perfect place for a powder room,” Millar says.
Photographs by John Lewis
Washington slept here
There are six bedrooms in Worsell Manor, including two on the third floor, where exposed beams are marked with Roman numerals that helped the 17th century builders of the home match the joists.
Washington’s diaries, preserved in the Smithsonian, reveal that he stayed in the large bedroom on the second floor at the front of the house.
Today, large brass lamps cast in the shapes of bald eagles flank the bed. A massive carved armoire with mirrors on each of its three doors is stationed next to the fireplace. It’s one of a number of antiques and reproductions the homeowners bought at an auction in Texas and shipped north.
A feature article on the home published in The Baltimore Sun in the 1950s provided clues as to how the Phillips family furnished the dining room. The wrought-iron candelabra that stand on either side of the fireplace are similar to a pair pictured in the newspaper.
The sideboard was discovered at an estate sale in St. Michaels and retains its original plate from Potthast Brothers, a
Baltimore-based furniture maker known for handmade reproductions of Queen Anne, Sheraton and Hepplewhite antiques.
“I was excited that the piece had a Maryland connection,” Millar says.
A mahogany gate-leg table was donated by a friend who thought the piece would be at home at the manor. The big and bling-y crystal chandelier over the dining table is a 21st century addition, purchased online at overstock.com.
Outdoors, the couple supplanted patches of weeds with formal gardens. The centerpiece is a vintage fountain topped with a pineapple, the Colonial symbol of hospitality, discovered at Gatsby’s. A half-acre vegetable garden yields enough produce to supply the cooking classes, as well as the homeowners’ family.
A massive sycamore in front of the house was likely planted when the manor was built, circa 1683. Its trunk measures 22 feet in circumference.
“In summer, it shades the entire house,” Millar says.
Although the couple’s primary residence is their new home in Galena, Md., Worsell Manor is a country house of sorts, a quiet place to get away.
McGuirk and Millar hosted their extended family on the estate for Thanksgiving. “It was a great experience, having everyone gathered around the table and enjoying the house,” she says. “After all those years of standing empty, the house has come back to life.”
Celebrate the past
At Worsell Manor, trusses on the third floor were left exposed, displaying the 17th century adz (tool) marks made by the home’s builders.
When a hayloft was removed during renovations on the barn, the loft’s centuries-old wood was re-laid as a kitchen floor.
Integrate modern amenities
There’s a flat-screen TV among the antiques in the formal parlor. New ceramic-tile bathrooms were installed throughout the house. A geothermal system provides heating and cooling.
The 12-over-12, divided-light windows are marvels themselves. Many retain wavy panes of glass that are more than 300 years old. The owners opted not to cover them with curtains.
Seek skilled artisans
At the manor, plasterers restored damaged walls. Amish craftsmen transformed the barn into a large hall for concerts and receptions.