Hidden treasure

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Drew Rieger can date his passion for old houses to the 1980s, when he’d ride the Hopkins shuttle bus downtown as a JHU engineering student minoring in music at The Peabody Conservatory. From the vantage point of his bus seat, he peered into the parlors of the once-grand 19th-century townhouses in and around Mount Vernon Place. “Looking in the windows, I imagined finding one down on its luck and bringing it back with all the furnishings, finishes and grandeur it deserved,” says Drew Rieger, a local designer with a background in engineering. “A few years later, I was renovating a few modest old houses, reading about period architecture and starting to collect antiques at auctions.”

By 1998, he’d purchased a rare table and sideboard made by the celebrated 19th-century Baltimore cabinetmaker John Needles and an English harpsichord he imagined one day playing in his own candlelit salon. His real estate sleuthing, however, had proven less successful. A “For Sale” ad in 2003 brought him to a huge boardinghouse near Mount Vernon Place. After he walked inside the front door and tripped over a drunk passed out on the floor, he left. A year later, he returned for lack of other prospects and this time made his way through each of the home’s 56 rooms on six floors. In two of the tiny first-floor rooms, he spotted a stunning 6-foot-wide marble mantel and an ornate ceiling medallion. “Amazing, beautiful original details were still there,” he says. “I knew I was standing in the parlor of a Greek Revival townhouse built in Baltimore before the Civil War.” 
 
Rieger paid what he considered a bargain price because the building was dilapidated and languishing on the market. The day he settled, he took a sledgehammer to the interior first-floor walls and went on to fill 14 Dumpsters the first year without removing any original material. “I was unraveling the whole house because I could see antique parts had been cut out and repurposed: banisters, newel posts and 60 pine doors, which I had to rematch to original openings,” he says. “I used auto body filler to replace chunks removed from the old casings and millwork where plumbing pipes were inserted. Some windows had original wavy glass; some windows were gone.”

By separating 20th-century drywall from original old plaster, Rieger discovered the original English Georgian configuration of the 24-by-24-foot grand, formal parlor. He also discovered that the rear section of the first floor was totally different, added around 1880 as space for a kitchen and servants. 

While Rieger reclaimed the house’s original materials, he also researched its history, discovering it had been built in 1847 by a businessman named George R. Gaither as one of a row of five houses for luxury rentals. “I traced the two marble mantels and the front windows’ three exterior cast-iron balconies to English pattern books in circulation 30 years before the construction of the house,” he says. “Gaither had an import-export business and probably sent to England for a number of fine appointments to furnish his new rowhouses.”

A photograph from the 1938 Historic American Buildings Survey identified the address as the Cathedral Hotel in the early 20th century. But Google yielded the best cache: “The Sun’s 1903 obituary for Dr. Francis Turquand Miles noted him as being laid out here, in the parlor of his home,” says Rieger. “He was the commander of infantry at Fort Sumter at the opening of the Civil War and subsequently a field surgeon who was invited after the war by the University of Maryland to be the chair of neurology and physiology. His wife, Jeannie, attended balls at the home of John Jacob Astor in New York. His son, Louis Wardlaw Miles, was a classmate of Woodrow Wilson at Hopkins, English literature professor to F. Scott Fitzgerald at Princeton, a WWI Medal of Honor recipient and headmaster at Gilman.” (After the Miles family left, the house became a hotel in the ’30s.)

After learning that illustrious residents with Southern roots had occupied the house, Rieger was even more committed to return it to the grace of bygone times. Thanks to his efforts over the past seven years, the two front rooms of the house are models of English and antebellum taste— “I discovered the duplicate of my parlor’s ceiling medallion at a plantation in Natchez,” he says— with the antiques he’s collected over the years providing a balanced, gracious framework. Smaller furnishings play to the salon culture of the 18th century, a time of enlightenment when concerts and recitations occurred in parlors.

“My collections of globes, prints and busts of famous people are part of the same tradition that informed the architects who built these houses,” says Rieger. “The core seating is scaled for modern comfort and easily movable to facilitate gatherings of five to 150 people.” His transformation of the back parlor, originally a less-formal family room, into a grand dining room suits his entertaining needs, which today involve everything from political and symphony fundraisers to his own harpsichord concerts.

The 3,000-square-foot back section of the house added in the 1880s was another story. “I took liberties with it because it was a ruin, and I needed a 21st-century kitchen,” says Rieger. Two stories high, the partially-built-from-salvage kitchen reflects his talent for new as well as recycled design. “I knew the Greek Revival style at the front of the house was based on the Doric order, but I owned columns in the Ionic order and installed them when I built new cabinets along one wall.” A failing exterior wall helped him decide to add a wing with a breakfast room behind the kitchen inspired by Monet’s blue-and-yellow dining room at Giverny.
 
In the former boardinghouse rooms upstairs, Rieger saved flooring and incorporated discarded house parts in his room-by-room reclamation. Sometimes, finding just the right salvage piece took him far afield and cost him months or years of working to, say, rejoin paneling for a library or apply just the right deep, dark colors in rooms meant to be used with candlelight. “I barred polyurethane as a finish and used shellac,” he says. “I painted with a brush, never a roller.” In time, he felt the atmosphere of the house change “from dread to a warmth I couldn’t anticipate,” he says. “I was careful not to overly restore it. There’s definitely a patina, now, that delivers the feeling of a house that was— and still is— a very special home.”

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