In 1994, Baltimore-based real estate developer Edward St. John attended a party at the Severna Park home of fellow developer Cal Grey, took in the expansive view of the Severn River out back and said to himself: “This is the feel I want.”
At the time, St. John, then living on a 300-acre estate in Worthington Valley, had been searching for a “shore home” for more than three years. He continued to look for three additional years, visiting every substantial property along the Magothy, South and Severn rivers. But he couldn’t find anything that rivaled the privacy and long river view that Grey’s home offered.
As luck would have it, in 1998 Grey visited St. John’s office on another matter and mentioned in passing that his home was for sale. St. John played it “cool” but inside jumped up and down, he says: after seven years of searching he was getting exactly what he wanted. His plan was to “paint and paper” and start using the home immediately as a weekend retreat.
Little did he know that over the course of seven more years he’d radically transform the house— adding three bedrooms and three bathrooms, a professional kitchen, a breakfast room and an English pub-style bar, as well as completely re-envisioning the first floor— to create a 16,000-square-foot home that accommodates large-scale entertaining with elegance and ease.
And little did he know that in undertaking such a renovation, almost nothing besides that unforgettable view would remain unchanged.
“I wanted the theme of the house to be Palm Beach, what with the weather and water and light,” says St. John. That theme suggests itself immediately as visitors enter the front door into a sumptuous foyer done in a palette of white, beige and gold. With a gleaming travertine marble floor, a dramatic Schonbek crystal chandelier hanging from a ceiling crowned with intricate moulding and two gold-leaf Louis IV armchairs set in front of an 18th-century Chippendale mirror, the foyer presents itself as a New World manor house out of the Gilded Age.
Indeed, the home is often the setting for charity galas, such as the seated dinner for 125 guests St. John hosted for Hospice of the Chesapeake, as well as several fund-raisers he’s hosted for nearby Severn School. In 2006, he hosted a Cystic Fibrosis Foundation fund-raiser attended by the Miss USA pageant contestants, among 250 other notables. This past June, 225 guests filled St. John’s home for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation’s “Grape Gatsby” fund-raiser, complete with 1920s cars parked out front and a swing band playing by a dance floor set down on the back patio— and Jay Gatsby (or an actor playing him) roaming the party.
From the foyer, guests stroll along the marble floor— which was painstakingly laid to preserve the original veins in the marble— past a Steinway player piano signed by Henry Steinway himself to reach a cozy U-shaped seating area. Beyond that is an English pub-style bar clad in rich cherry walls and floors, where beer is available on tap thanks to a Perlick refrigeration system. The bar stools belonged to the Greys— St. John kept them both because he liked them and out of sentimentality.
Adjoining the bar is an elegant library that once was the Greys’ living room. “I had bookshelves built to match the window moulding and the coffee table top custom-gilded to match the gold gilt on the coffered ceiling,” says St. John. Two armchairs covered in crocodile leather sit atop the cherry and walnut parquet flooring. Like many of the furnishings in the home, St. John selected them with the guidance of now-deceased interior designer Michael Asner of Aumen Asner in Baltimore, a longtime friend.
The dining room provides another opulent space for gathering, with seating for 18 at a hand-carved table made by EJ Victor. Light from a chandelier bought on Baltimore’s Antique Row illuminates St. John’s collections of Princess Flatware (the hand-chased predecessor to Steiff’s rose pattern), castle silver from the 1700s to the 1900s and Meissen china.
Despite the beauty of these rooms, the focal point of the home— the place where all guests eventually gravitate— is the sun-drenched great room, which offers a view of the river on three sides. When St. John bought the home, which was built in 1988, an oversized central fireplace partially obstructed the view. He immediately asked a worker to take an electric chisel to the fireplace. Then he replaced the home’s original small-paned Georgian windows with uninterrupted glass and raised the roof to accommodate an arched window. “I bought the view,” he says. It is the longest view on the Severn River, “straight as a yardstick.” In homage to it, St. John has named his estate First View.
No curtains or window treatments distract from the scene. The only adornment to the windows is columns and intricate plasterwork, the suggestion of Dick Schaefer, a classical architect who created the concept for the home’s interior details. “I kind of started to fall in love with the Greek classical look,” says St. John. “I hadn’t seen that before in a house.”
As much as the home is a venue for St. John to entertain friends, family and the community, it’s a showplace for his passion for cutting-edge technology. A cellular repeater installed in the home ensures perfect reception. All of the windows boast automatic shades. All of the lighting— ceiling lights, floor lights, reading lights— is controlled by programmable keyboards. At night, says one guest, the home is “lit up like a cruise ship.”
Music can be heard throughout the home and grounds thanks to speakers hidden throughout the property, and a digital delay system similar to one found in stadiums was installed to counteract the delay caused by multiple amplifiers, says Bill Shapiro, owner of Custom Electronic Services in Owings Mills. “Butt kickers” and amplifiers are hidden in the sofas in the living room— the better to enjoy the 60-inch plasma TV that masquerades as a gilt-framed painting when not in use, thanks to plasma art. “In my previous life I was an electrical engineer with a lighting certificate,” says St. John. “I was also a kitchen designer and I designed the kitchen.”
There are actually two kitchens in the home. The original kitchen is now called the “morning kitchen,” and features the table, chairs and chandelier that were once in St. John’s Worthington Valley home. The professional catering kitchen, which St. John created out of the space once occupied by a bedroom and a screened porch, boasts two commercial refrigerators, two refrigerator drawers, two warmers, two dishwashers, three sinks, a convection oven, a Vulcan stovetop and a grill system. “You can plate for 125 people on this center island,” says St. John. “I don’t cook. I just design kitchens.”
He designs bathrooms, too— or at least he designed a luxurious master bathroom in which the floor, ceiling and vanity are all travertine marble, an idea inspired by the bathroom in a home he rented on the Pacific Ocean in Mexico. “I had never been in an all-marble bathroom before,” he says. “I was blown away and I got it.” All of the glass in the bathroom, like all of the glass tabletops throughout the home, is Starfire glass.
“Normal glass has a green tint,” says St. John. “Starfire glass is crystal clear.”
A nifty feature of the spacious bathroom is the stairway at the rear that leads to a cedar closet, which had been unfinished attic space in the home when he bought it. In fact, St. John added several bedrooms on the second and third floors that had been unfinished space originally.
The master bedroom is paneled in quarter-sawn white oak, with custom shelving tucked behind the panels. The peg-and-groove oak floors gleam thanks to St. John’s discovery that “six coats of urethane makes simple wood floors look like furniture.” Above the fireplace, a framed 60-inch plasma TV is one of three high-definition televisions in the master suite— one comes out of the ceiling above the bed.
Each summer St. John, an avid boater and fisherman, hosts a weekend-long Caribbean party during which the house functions as a private resort for 300 guests. Many arrive by boat, mooring almost at the shoreline, thanks to the deep harbor created by the property’s earlier tenants, Riverside Brick Works, which mined sand for the manufacture of glass until the 1920s.
From the dock, a path leads up a central brick stairway to a wide expanse of brick patios and terraces— all of which were landscaped by landscape architect Reed Fulton after St. John bought the home— and finally to a pool surrounded by palm trees and chaise lounges. Beyond the pool is a pool house and gazebo; beyond that is a fenced-in area for dogs to run freely. For those who want to stroll, there is 2,000 feet of waterfront to explore, as well as the private pond on the other side of the house, where osprey, blue herons and geese take up residence each year. In the basement, which St. John expanded during the renovation, there’s a pool and air hockey table, a wine cellar and a full gym.
One suspects that many guests to St. John’s home must have the same reaction he did when they visit: they want the place for themselves. But they’ll have to bide their time, because Ed St. John finally has his view. And he’s not selling.
Architectural home builder William F. Lockard Jr. and Son, 410-274-6799
Interior Design Aumen Asner Inc., 410-837-2767
Electronics Custom Electronic Services, Owings Mills, 410-363-4949
“cool” but inside jumped up and down, he says: after seven years of searching he was getting exactly what he wanted. His plan was to “paint and paper” Cabinetmaker John Cynkar, 410-259-1272
Lighting JDL, 410-247-6141