There is always something new to discover in places you think you know well. I’ve been traveling to Crisfield in Somerset County on Maryland’s Eastern Shore for decades. My husband’s family were Chesapeake watermen and farmers for generations, going back to the first English settlers in the seventeenth century. The drive from the Maryland suburbs of Washington D.C. is like a journey back in time. History seems to have passed by Crisfield, a backwater town where old values, and old prejudices, linger on. The place has a down-at-heel air with shuttered shops and struggling businesses. What a surprise then to find an oasis of luxury living just a short drive away amid the fields of Marion Station.
We first learned of Kingsbay Mansion last year while dining at our favorite Crisfield restaurant, The Waterman’s Inn. Disproving Samuel Johnson’s dictum that you cannot find good conversation in the countryside, we met up with Jerry and David, two great conversationalists at the adjoining table. In this age of communication by tweet and emoji it is becoming a rare pleasure to encounter people who excel at the art of conversation. It turned out that three of us were celebrating June birthdays and from that beginning we talked about all manner of things. Both men are involved with media and the arts so I assumed that like us they were visitors from out of town. But no, it turned out they are also proprietors of the Kingsbay Mansion, a Georgian style house that they restored and turned into a luxury B&B. We determined to pay a visit on our next trip to the Eastern Shore.
So this year, before heading to Ocean City for my husband’s annual conference, we planned a night at Kingsbay. On the way I kept referring to our destination as King’s Landing, a slip we don’t need Dr. Freud to explain. We turned off the highway to Crisfield at Marion Station, literally the site of an old railroad station from the days when Crisfield was a thriving town. A narrow road took us through flat open fields, a few small houses visible in the distance. It didn’t seem like a place where you would find a mansion. Even our GPS was confused. “You have arrived at your destination,” she intoned. “Your destination is on the left.” We stopped, but saw nothing but empty fields, a clump of trees in the distance. Continuing on uncertainly we came to a turn in the road that at last revealed an imposing gateway and a long tree-lined drive. I felt like the nameless heroine of Rebecca getting her first glimpse of Manderley as we emerged from the trees, the house suddenly appearing before us. Beyond sweeping lawns the waters of Coulbourn Creek at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay glimmered in the bright sunshine.
Our host Jerry gave us a tour of the house and grounds, which feature English formal gardens and a swimming pool. Inside the entry hall opens into a spacious rotunda with a curved staircase and an impressive chandelier which we learned was custom made in Belgium. The intricately designed inlaid floor is made with a variety of Maryland hardwoods. As we passed from room to room the effort that had gone into restoring this once abandoned ruin was impressive. It wore its history lightly, like a grande dame comfortable in period dress. I was a little disappointed to learn that the mansion isn’t really very old. It was built in 1970 to a Georgian design by Ian McCallum, the architect for Colonial Williamsburg. Surely too recently for ghosts to wander the hallways or dark deeds of former owners to haunt the present. But it turned out that fifty years is enough for some intriguing history, including a link with Hollywood glamour.
Florence George was reputedly a flamboyant character, an opera singer born in 1917 and educated at the Chicago Conservatory. She made her operatic debut in Rigoletto at the Chicago Opera House, a performance which drew the notice of a Paramount talent scout. In Hollywood Ms. George had several singing roles in minor movies before marrying a much older man, Bing Crosby’s brother Everett, in 1939. He managed her career, focusing on concerts and opera. Together they settled on a farm in Connecticut raising horses and traveling the world for her singing engagements. After Everett’s death in 1966 Florence shocked their acquaintances by taking up with Eddie Ortiz, a man twenty years her junior rumored to be involved with the Mafia’s gambling business in San Juan. They married in 1970 and moved to Maryland in 1988, purchasing the mansion then known as The Oaks. Their extravagant lifestyle included a French chef and a yellow Rolls Royce convertible, not exactly the norm for sleepy Somerset county. Florence and Eddie both loved animals; she kept birds and a pet monkey. Eddie was devoted to his Rottweiler who left his permanent mark on the house with deep scratches on one of the interior doors. Eddie died under somewhat mysterious circumstances but I was unable to pry the details out of the current owners. Kingsbay Mansion holds its secrets close.
After the Ortiz era the mansion stood abandoned for years, falling into ruin and preyed upon by vandals. One local resident recalls sometimes seeing lights in the uninhabited house. And one late night as she drove past she saw a moving van pulled up in the driveway. She called the police when she arrived home but never knew if they followed up. Certainly many high quality building materials were stolen. The current owners recall finding all the upstairs doors removed and stacked up in the hallway, as though waiting for the thieves to pick them up.
Today it is hard to imagine Kingsbay Mansion as a ruin. Jerry and David’s meticulous restoration has given it a gracious timeless style, a perfect atmosphere for retreat from the bustle and cares of daily life. And you can easily imagine you are in an old building because some of the materials used in the restoration are really old. The bricks laid in one of the fireplace hearths came from England. They still bear the prints of chicken feet and dog paws, traces of animals who roamed freely in an English household long ago.