When Mary Johns first saw the historic St. Mary’s Rectory in Aquasco, Md., she told her husband she “wouldn’t want any other house, if I could have this house.” The newlyweds had been living in a townhouse in Woodbridge, Va., and were looking for a place to start a family. In 2006 the couple purchased the Greek Revival home, which had served as the rectory for St. Paul’s Parish Episcopal Church until 1977, and began extensive restoration efforts.
“It had the old style radiators. We spent a summer coming out on the weekends, starting to renovate it, and quickly realized that although the previous owners said the summers were bearable without central air, well...they weren’t. We installed central heating and air, which allowed us to get rid of the radiators, and a side-benefit of that was that it gave us more room for furniture.”
They added a screened porch, a feature the house had in the past. Jane Young lived in the house for four years in the 1950s, when her father was Rector of St. Pauls’ Parish, and remembers the house as an interesting place surrounded by shrubs, berry bushes, flowers and wild birds. She also could have warned the Johns about those hot, Southern Maryland summers.
“It was so sweltering hot, we were allowed to drag our mattresses down to the screened in porch,” said Young.
The Johns also cleared overgrowth on the five-acre property.
“The hedge had grown so that you could barely see the house; we took that down. We used our hands to yank down stuff. We even discovered an old, metal bathtub out there,” said Johns. “That first summer was just lots of blood, sweat and tears, and very delicately taking a Dremel tool to the original hardware on doors that had been painted over probably 10 times, in different colors of paint. It was like discovering treasure everywhere we went.”
They were determined to make Historic St. Mary’s Rectory “the best new old house we could,” and invested approximately $200,000 in the restoration. They also received a $60,000 grant from the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission to restore the original cedar and yellow pine siding.
“That enabled us to restore the exterior. We did all the interior work, but the exterior we would not have been able to do, without the grant,” Johns said.
The house, when the Johns’ bought it, was covered in asbestos siding from the 1940s or 1950s.
“We did not know what was under it. We could just see little glimpses of it near the cellar doors,” Johns said. Annapolis-based Tower Companies handled the restoration of the home’s exterior.
“There’s a pretty clear record of what had been there and different bits and pieces remaining. It was guided reconstruction, guided by the existing material,” said John Tower.
The siding was made mostly of cypress and yellow pine, old-growth hardwoods that were most likely locally sourced in the original construction.
“It was incredible stuff. It did not go to waste. What it had on it was layers of paint, going back to the original paint. I don’t think it had ever been stripped,” Tower said. “The cypress that we used was definitely not local. The reason for that is that the northernmost cypress swamp is (Battle Creek Cypress Swamp in Calvert County, Md.), and is a protected area, but back in the day no one really thought about it.”
Tower’s crew spent the summer of 2011 restoring the siding and stabilizing and restoring the front porch of the home. Shortcuts by previous renovators made the job a little easier.
“Different remodeling had occurred, but most of the original material had been left in place. I don’t know if that was for economic reasons, or if they were trying to do as little work as possible,” Tower said.
Because the house has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1987, “everything we did, we had to pass muster with the Prince George’s County Planning Board preservationist,” said Tower, who also noted that the stairs, “when you go up them, they were designed for people who were slightly shorter than the modern adult. There’s less head room than you’d normally see.”
The Johns’ neighbor Tom Moore milled the wood used for siding and trim work for the restoration. Because the house was built before the use of electric tools, “each carpenter had his own tools, so different parts of the house depended on what carpenter, and what tools he had,” Moore said. “They may have had several carpenters working at the same time, or over time.”
Moore used samples from the original siding as templates to grind the knives needed to create the siding, for an authentic look.
“If there’s a defect, I will grind that into the knives so that all the pieces will have the same defect,” Moore explained, “So it doesn’t look like Wal-Mart. Having all this really old industrial equipment (as part of his Sterling Millworks shop in Aquasco) really helps.”
After seven years in the home, the Johns have put it on the market, in the hopes of moving their growing family closer to her husband’s job in Tysons Corner, Va.
“I would absolutely want to buy another historic home, but as the mother of three young children I’d wait until the renovations are complete,” Johns said. “I don’t think we’d ever have the energy to do what we did.”