Nestled atop a 140-foot cliff overlooking a graceful bend in the Severn River, a classic Georgian Revival home peaks out from behind stands of trees. This stately brick structure was modeled after the James River Plantations and enjoys the privacy of 23 picturesque acres—and a history that is truly unique.
Up until recently, it was also a mess. Years of neglect interspersed with makeshift renovations had left it a shadow of its former imposing self. Built in 1922 (by an arms dealer who ostensibly concealed illegal weapons in a hidden basement passageway), the property changed hands several times before the Catholic Church purchased it in the 1940s and converted it into St. Conrad Friary, which at its peak housed more than 60 Capuchin monks. Thirty years later, the monks’ numbers had dwindled and the house—then complete with a medieval-style chapel and a boxy five-story dormitory—was sold. Over the next 30 years it remained largely empty, an intimidatingly massive and dilapidated structure that caused prospective buyers to run the other way.
Enter Phillips Seafood CEO Steve Phillips and his wife, Maxine. “We were looking for a house on the Severn with privacy,” Maxine says. “But we didn’t look at this one because it was listed with 27 bedrooms!”
Eventually, the acreage and dramatic views convinced the couple to take a look. Three hours later the house was theirs—despite the presence of a large family of raccoons living in it. “We thought we’d buy it for the land and tear it down,” says Maxine. “But as we started going through the house we found little hidden elements to it, and the history captured our fancy. It turned out to be in shockingly good shape structurally too. We thought, ‘This building wants to be here. We shouldn’t tear it down.’”
The couple tasked Annapolis architect Charles Anthony with restoring the mansion to its original splendor and adding the touches and conveniences that would make the place feel like home. “Though respectful, they weren’t interested in a strictly historic approach,” Anthony says. “They wanted a functional, comfortable home for living and entertaining.”
In fact, Steve Phillips had a specific vision for a home that would incorporate his own preferences—particularly a love of all things Southeast Asian and Indian, amassed during many years of travel to those regions for Phillips Seafood. “Steve was fascinated by all the details,” Anthony recalls. “He would have an idea and he’d say, ‘Be an architect and make that happen.’ The challenge was to pull [the Asian influences] together while being true to the Georgian vocabulary.”
When the restoration began, the house was divided into three sections: the central core, now faithfully restored in the Georgian Revival style, and the two wings, angled off the rear of the house, which were added during the monks’ tenure. The owners thought about tearing down the chapel but decided ultimately to keep it as a giant entertainment hall. They took out the confessionals and the organ and replaced the dais with a massive limestone fireplace that accents the medieval sensibility of the room. They removed beat-up parquet floors in favor of smooth, lush teak.
Retaining the institutional dormitory wing was a non-starter. In its place, Anthony designed a one-story guest wing with two bedrooms and a spacious common room filled with Asian artifacts. Eye-catching as these antiques are, the room’s ‘wow factor’ definitely comes from two windows that, like giant portholes, offer underwater views into the adjacent outdoor pool’s interior, aquarium-style—while bathing the room in a bluish glow.
All three sections of the house were linked by what Anthony describes as “a tiny knuckle—only one doorway to get to all three wings.” In order to create a better connection between the spaces, Anthony designed an expanded, two-story circular hub clad in limestone, encompassing a conservatory upstairs and an atrium below. The conservatory leads to the former chapel and the guest wing, as well as to the infinity pool and adjoining terraces; the rotunda provides access to an indoor resistance pool, sauna and whirlpool. An oculus in the center of the conservatory admits light while recalling the home’s Classic Revivals roots.
Anthony also had to contend with a steeply graded property when making his plans. “Maryland Critical Law is strict with steep slopes and proximity to water,” he says. “We had both.” With the help of landscape architect Jay Graham, the property was restructured in a range of grades, both inside and out (a common room, for instance, is built below the level of the adjacent pool—which in turn drops off on one side 14 feet to the natural grade of the property). Taking advantage of the sloping land, Anthony created functional underground spaces, such as a giant garage concealed beneath a walled terrace to the side of the house.
The Phillipses called on designer Henry Berman of Johnson | Berman for guidance with the interiors. The central, Georgian-style structure remains traditional with classic Western furnishings and original heart pine floors. Upstairs, a spacious master suite features his and hers dressing rooms and gorgeous views of the Severn from a private, landscaped roof terrace. However, adherence to the Georgian sensibility loosens as one moves farther from the center of the home; for example, heart pine floors give way to limestone from a quarry in India, with paneling in imported teak. Yet Berman ensured that the interiors would all blend seamlessly together. After six years of construction renovation, the couple is finally able to enjoy their remarkable property. “It’s our home now,” explains Maxine. It was well worth the wait.
ARCHITECTURE: CHARLES E. ANTHONY, Charles E. Anthony Architects, PC, Annapolis, Maryland. INTERIOR DESIGN: HENRY JOHNSON, Johnson | Berman Interior Design, Baltimore, Maryland. CONTRACTOR: FRANK YOCKEY, ILEX Construction, Baltimore, Maryland. LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE: JAY GRAHAM, FASLA, Graham Landscape Architecture, Annapolis, Maryland.