This imposing home, situated on one of the main arteries leading to the seat of power in Colonial Maryland, was intended to broadcast the owner’s affluence. As such, it announces that he [or she] is someone that any passerby might well envy. The main entrance, which has been called “the most beautiful door in America,” is flanked by Ionic columns decorated with an egg and dart motif and is topped by a frieze of laurel leaves and an architrave draped with carved spandrels of roses in high relief. Capping it all is a bull’s-eye window with an elaborate cartouche frame. The effect is one not only of grandeur but of warm welcome to a seemingly idyllic existence. Yet this presumption, like the front door of white pine with a faux mahogany finish, is an illusion.
The primary occupant, Frances Chase Loockerman, who lived here for forty-six years and whose taste is reflected in the fine furnishings, endured more heartbreak than most of us will ever know or could endure. She and her husband, Richard Loockerman, moved in with their three young children in 1811 when her father, Judge Jeremiah Townley Chase, purchased the home as a gift for her. He rented the office space in the NE wing and lived around the corner, so you might say this was his way of “watching over her” in more ways than one.
Frances and Richard were a strikingly handsome couple and an apparent love match with everything going for them. Her great-grandmother was English nobility on her father’s side, and her mother, a local tavern keeper’s daughter, was renowned for her beauty. For his part, Richard was described by one of his peers as one of the handsomest, most sensible and well-informed men of his age. Yet he was also an alcoholic and chronic gambler, for which reason Judge Chase stipulated that the house be held in trust under Frances’ name only.
Good thing, too, for when Richard died in 1834 in pecuniary straits, purportedly in the slave quarters of his Eastern Shore plantation following a three-week drunken bender, Frances was left with four children to raise. She had by then raised two daughters to adulthood, but another four of her ten children had already died. Of the surviving six, only one lived a long and productive married life, and that was Hester Harwood, whose daughters would ultimately inherit the home. Her most promising son, a lawyer named Jeremiah, after his grandfather, died as a bachelor in his thirties. Her second son, Francis, mysteriously disappeared after becoming the first student expelled from St. John’s College for punching a professor. And her third son, Townley, was institutionalized for mental illness following a decade marked by violence and paranoia, often directed at his mother.
When I think of the golden couple who made this their home for a generation, I am reminded of the title character in Edward Arlington Robinson’s narrative poem Richard Corey, in which a fine gentleman who glittered when he walked and was envied by those who went without meat and cursed the bread…one calm summer night…put a bullet through his head. Frances was made of stronger stuff, but her life was not the carefree existence it likely seemed to outsiders. Keep this in mind as you tour the mansion, for deceptive appearances, like the faux-mahogany door, were also key to the architect’s vision of perfect symmetry and harmony.
By Jane Elkin, HHH Docent
Photo credit: Sarah Churchill Kell