80 – Rockland, circa 1803, Sharpsburg Pike, Fairplay, Md.
Just north of Lappans Crossroads on Route 65, settled among a group of farm buildings and far from the road, is a massive, three-story stone structure with two wings of about the same size. In 1800, Colonel Frisby Tilghman (1773-1847), a member of a prominent eastern shore family, began assembling vast holdings of land in this area through marriage. He later purchased 200 acres of an adjoining parcel of land called Widow’s Mite. It was Colonel Tilghman who built the home that was to evolve into the mansion that dominates the estate he named Rockland.
Rockland faces east and has two wings: a four-bay south wing with a formal entrance beneath a narrow, columned porch; and, set back, a three-bay north wing with a central entrance. Another door enters its north face. Well back and to the rear of the house is a stone summer kitchen with a huge cooking fireplace, and still further is a stone springhouse with an overhanging gable. A massive post-and-beam frame barn and an assortment of other accessory structures complete the scene.
Rockland charmed Ed and Donna Stavish with its space and with its extensive period detail. The dominant feature of the house is a Federal-style suspended staircase in the south wing that spirals from the ground floor to the attic. An oval skylight with curved muntins illuminates the stairs. Two plain plank doors, built to imitate sections of the wall, even crossed by finger rail, are built into this stairwell and are curved to match the curve of the wall. Fanlights span interior doors. Original woodwork and doors, drawn plaster cornice moldings, ceiling tracery and ceiling medallions are found throughout this wing of the building.
When the Stavishes purchased Rockland in 1991, it was in urgent need of rescue. In addition to the accumulation of debris that littered the buildings and yard, the barn needed extensive roof repair and beam reconstruction; there was no central heat in the house, and only rudimentary electricity. The stucco was falling from the exterior of the house in sheets, and water had done extensive damage to walls and woodwork.
Ed and Donna dug in. An existing building was stabilized and turned into a workshop by adding vinyl siding, insulation, heat, electricity and garage doors. The barn roof and beams were repaired. They bought a cherry picker and a backhoe to give themselves some purchase on the monumental task before them. Stucco was removed from the house; then it was power-washed and repointed. New systems were installed; a floor was poured in the basement; a new water line installed; and the tedious work of rebuilding windows, woodwork and plaster went forward.
When they first started, the Stavishes lived in the north wing while working on the south. Ed selected a bedroom that had been painted a particularly garish purple but assured Donna that it would be just a couple of weeks before they would be done with one of the bedrooms in the other wing. Two years later, they were able to leave the purple room, rueful about how little time it would have taken just to paint it for temporary relief while they stayed there.
As the work has progressed, Ed and Donna have encountered a series of fascinating puzzles about the house, how it was originally built and how it evolved. The Illustrated Atlas of Washington County, Maryland 1877 shows Rockland as if it were two houses side-by-side with a mansard roof on the north section and a hip roof topped with a belvedere on the south. When Ed Stavish began to repair the mansard roof, he discovered that it was a later addition because he found just the beginning of a gable slope, leveled with brick, remaining beneath the frieze and cornice of the mansard roof. With fear and trepidation, Ed removed the roof and built a frame gable end on the north face of the house. Three east-facing dormers pierce the new roof much as they did the mansard one.
The hip roof presents another mystery. In the attic, the south wall of this south wing is at least a foot higher than its other walls; and the stonework is pierced to allow the roof joists to overhang at the same level as the rest of the joists. Was a south end gable cut back to create the hip roof; and did workmen, tired of tearing down the old stone gable, decide to leave as much of the wall up as possible? The belvedere that once topped this roof was removed long ago, and the reason was obvious when work started in the attic. Floors and joists beneath its site were seriously water damaged. To substitute for the belvedere, Ed built a widow’s walk to crown the south wing.
When the stucco was removed, high quality stonework was revealed. There were quoined corners and segmental arches over the windows as well as remnants of raised German pointing. It would appear that the stucco was a later addition, possibly around 1876, when dated signatures within the walls of the house indicate that the mansard roof and the plaster moldings were added. Local stone is called blue limestone, but most early stone buildings in this area have a buff-gray color. The stone in Rockland, however, has a decided blue cast, preserved by having been covered with stucco for more than 100 years.
On the back wall of the house where the two sections are contiguous, there is no seam in the stonework between the wings. A stone wall separates these sections, and most of the interior walls of the house are also masonry. The spiral staircase was not original to the home either, for walls hidden by the stairs were found to be carefully plastered.
Colonel Frisby Tilghman had assembled an estate of 1,110 acres by the time of his death in 1847. According to the terms of an unsigned but handwritten will dated March 1845, which was accepted by the court, Colonel Tilghman wanted all his property sold, his debts paid and the remainder distributed in unequal portions to his eight children or their heirs. An explanatory note reads in part, … In order to explain to my children the motives by which I have been actuated in the discharge of a most painful and harrassing duty, I now on this envelop make the following, short statement. My daughter Mary Hammond has re’d. of my Estate at least twelve or 13,000$. My son George Tilghman decd. at least $11,500. My son Thomas E. Tilghman $11,500 and my son Frisby Tilghman at least $1500. William Hollyday, my son in law, who married two of my daughters Nancy and Louisa, has involved me in debt and will compel me to pay for him, more than the two shares of my estate, that my daughters Nancy and Louisa together are entitled to, consequently in my opinion in point of justice to my other children to wit Susan Davis, Frisby Tilghman and Margaret Tilghman, they must in the first place be provided for… Margaret Tilghman would later marry General Thomas J. McKaig.
The sale was held in February of 1848, and the advertisement included this description, …This Estate is situated in one of the most fertile parts of the County, is equi-distant from the towns of Hagerstown, Williamsport, Boonsboro’, and Sharpsburg, about six miles, and is convenient to a number of grist mills in this region of the county. The Improvements are elegant and extensive, and so arranged, as to carry the estate on in separate Farms. Every necessary Building has been provided, at heavy expense, the soil well cultivated, the fencing of the best kind, and in good order with excellent wells of water over the whole property. It also contains a small line drawing of the house. It pictures a three-story wing on the right with a one-story wing of the same depth on the left. Both sections are three bays wide and have gable ends. If this picture accurately describes the house at Rockland in 1848, then the south wing was expanded one bay to the south, several feet forward (east) and two stories up. This must have occurred before autumn of 1876 when the workmen who built the stairs, the mansard roof and probably added the stucco signed and dated interior boards during their work.
Land records show that Thomas T. McKaig purchased Rockland and its 256 and 1/4 acres May 23, 1876, for $25,000; so he must have been the one to make the extensive renovations. He sold it just three years later, December 24, 1879, to Frisby Tilghman McKaig for $15,000. The McKaig Journal states that General Thomas Jefferson McKaig married Margaret Tilghman in 1874 when he was 70, lived on a farm in Washington County and fathered two children, one named Frisby Tilghman McKaig. Did land records record the wrong middle initial for Thomas McKaig? If so, where did Frisby Tilghman McKaig, who could not have been more than four in 1879, get $15,000? Was this some legal ploy, a Christmas gift?
The south wing is well on its way to being finished. The architrave around the entrance and the door are repaired and freshly painted; the foyer’s magnificent space is filled with light from the three six-over-six windows; and a double arch, supported by fluted columns, frames the staircase, with its delicate square balusters and double hand rails that terminate in volutes. When working inside the stairs, Ed found a tree, still with its bark, but shaped to the curve of the spiral, under the steps connected to both the floor and the wall. After considering several options, he decided that the least destructive way to stabilize the stairs was to add two support posts on the first floor. Beyond the staircase, an archway leads to a double door with a fanlight that exits to the rear of the house.
Ed learned to repair and replace the drawn plaster moldings on the cornices and the ceilings by making a pattern to replicate the existing molding and drawing the wet plaster with this pattern until the plaster was smooth. When he could not repair wood moldings, he cut new knives for his router so that he could make replacements that replicated the originals.
To the left of the foyer is the living room with a brown marble mantel surrounding the firebox. Behind the foyer is an exit to the hall. On the second level of this wing were four bedrooms. Three have been restored; and the fourth has been used for a master bath, complete with a whirlpool tub, separate shower, walk-in closet and its own fireplace. The four fireplaces on this floor have white marble mantels with arched fireboxes, some with metal inserts, all still in the house when Ed and Donna bought it.
A lifetime of work is still to be done at Rockland. Donna looks forward to a new kitchen and a family room in the north wing, and to restoring the simpler woodwork on that side of the house. Sometimes they even have time to pick cherries from the tree out back with their cherry picker.
Epilogue 1996: The kitchen is completed, and work continues.
Epilogue 2015: The Stavish’s sold Rockland in 2004. It was sold again in 2010 and today Rockland is available for weddings and private event. http://rocklandweddingandevents.com/. This is a great success story for a grand old manor house enjoying it’s highest and best use.
This article appeared in the Herald Mail Sunday, May 5, 1996 as the 80th in the series.