A crumbling roof. Collapsed ceilings. Raccoons, both living and dead. A local builder's mammoth undertaking at historic Baltzley Castle becomes his own private obsession
Ross McNair brought Alison Taylor to see Baltzley Castle on a crisp fall day in 2010. Soon to be married, the couple had been looking for a home to buy together, and for years McNair had admired the old stone mansion overlooking MacArthur Boulevard and the Potomac River.
Taylor had never seen the Glen Echo house. “Lots of light was pouring in, and it was like a big, hidden treasure,” she says.
But if it wasn’t a tear-down, it was the mother of all restorations. The 120-year-old structure was a dump, to put it mildly. Water streamed through the crumbling red slate roof. Ceilings had caved in, as had the large, semi-circular stone front porch. Entire joists had rotted away or been eaten by termites. Raccoons and possums scurried around. A jungle of brush hid the chimneys and turrets from the road.
“That first visit was just an adventure,” Taylor says. “But after we left, Ross started talking about it a lot more.”
Thus began a more than two-year obsession.
Edward and Edwin Baltzley built the medieval-looking structure between 1888 and 1890 on a bluff in what is today the Mohican Hills neighborhood. For years, locals have referred to it and the smaller stone house next door as “the castles.”
Born into an Ohio family of industrialists and inventors, the twin brothers envisioned developing a “Rhineland on the Potomac” overlooking the river. To that end, they took the fortune Edwin had earned with his invention of a spatterless eggbeater, bought all the land from what is now the Sycamore Store on MacArthur Boulevard to the Cabin John Bridge and set about developing Glen Echo as a resort community and refuge from the dirty, swampy capital city down river. They helped start the National Chautauqua of Glen Echo, part of a movement that offered education and entertainment to the middle class, and founded the companies that built trolley lines to Glen Echo from Chevy Chase and downtown Washington, D.C.
Philadelphia architect Theophilus Parsons Chandler Jr. designed Baltzley and possibly the smaller R.A. Charles Castle next door. The latter takes its name from the Treasury Department official who built the house around 1890 on land purchased from the Baltzleys. Chandler was known for designing country homes, churches and enclosures at the Philadelphia Zoo, and the Baltzleys hired him at least in part for his name’s cachet.
The 16-room house was intended to be a showcase for them to entertain and attract notables to their new development, and it had all the amenities.
“Baltzley Castle had hot and cold running water and electricity before the White House did,” says Richard Cook, a Glen Echo historian who lives in Derwood. A cistern in the attic delivered water to a coal-fired water heater, and then the water was pumped through the house. “It was as modern and as up-to-date as it could be in the 1890s,” Cook says.
(The McNairs would later discover that water heater during their extensive restoration and dub it “R2-D2.”)
Of the elaborate architecture, Cook says it’s actually understated for the times. “We look at those houses and think they’re ornate, but back then people thought they were stark and simple.” The stone walls flared out near the ground like the trunks of the surrounding trees in a naturalistic style that can be seen at the Smithsonian Castle on the National Mall.
Edward Baltzley lived in the house first, before encountering money problems, the financial panic of 1893 and slow land sales. He decamped for Colorado in 1897 to look for gold and died of mercury poisoning in 1907. Edwin then lived in the house for a few years before leaving, too. He died penniless in New Jersey in 1919.
Baltzley Castle, however, remained, a neighborhood curiosity along the ridgeline. In the ensuing years, it went through a series of owners and renters. During the ’20s, it was a speakeasy called the “Mohican Lodge,” one of several roadhouses serving illegal liquor along Conduit Road (now MacArthur Boulevard), according to Cook. It later served as a bachelor pad during the FDR administration and World War II.
In 1958, Potomac developer Lloyd Potter bought the acreage in order to subdivide it. He built seven houses nearby and made a halfhearted attempt to remodel the castle, patching the roof and painting everything, including the woodwork. Then, in 1960, he sold Baltzley and the adjacent Charles Castle to Dr. Paul and Carol Schafer, a thoracic surgeon and his wife.
When the Schafers moved into Baltzley, they discovered where a large bar had once been bolted into the first floor, and found holes for beer tap hoses that had once connected to kegs in the basement. The holes had been covered with sheet metal. But though the couple did minor cosmetic work on the castle, they never undertook a true restoration.
For 31 years, the Schafers lived at Baltzley, entertaining an A list of friends and VIPs and gathering background on their beloved home that Carol Schafer kept in files and scrapbooks. They became known for their Halloween parties, hiring actors to dress in costume, with the doctor rising from a coffin to greet friends and scare trick-or-treaters.
After her husband died in 1991, Carol Schafer lived alone in Baltzley for 19 years before deciding to sell the two castles with the proviso that they be kept together to prevent future development.
Both castles had been placed in the Maryland Inventory of Historic Properties in 1979. But by the time McNair bought the 2-acre property in late 2010, Baltzley was crumbling from years of deferred maintenance, and Charles was in only marginally better shape.
Even in its deteriorated state, McNair knew that Baltzley’s bones were solid. “The only reason why it’s still standing is the quality of the construction back in the 1880s,” he says.
McNair’s firm, McNair Builders Inc. of Cabin John, has handled historic residential and commercial projects in the tri-state area, as well as the nearby Little Falls Swimming Club and Congressional Country Club, so he knew what he was getting into.
The son of a civil engineer who lived all over the globe, McNair started a painting company in high school in New Orleans and began remodeling houses while earning a double major in finance and construction management at Louisiana State University.
At 55, McNair is tall and laconic—his Southern roots obvious in his voice. But when he talks about Baltzley, he quickly becomes animated. He lived in Cabin John, Bannockburn and Brookmont for 32 years, and long admired the crumbling castles as a part of history. For anyone else, Baltzley might have been a risky endeavor. But McNair is a guy who likes driving Porsches fast—he owns three—and playing with his latest toy, a Sky Ski hydrofoil, at his vacation home in Lake Anna, Va. Of Baltzley, he says, “I knew I could fix it.”
Taylor was up for the challenge, too. Now 50 and a vice president at Siemens Corp. in Washington, D.C., she grew up in North Carolina and went to Duke University. She was an environmental lawyer and an avid cyclist living on Capitol Hill when a mutual friend set up the couple in 2006. Their first date was a dog walk in Cabin John, where McNair owned a home on Cabin Road. Their dogs, Chester and Marshall, got along well, and so did Taylor and McNair.
“We didn’t want his-and-her houses,” McNair says. “We wanted our house.” So in December 2010, the couple bought the two castles on a combined 2 acres for $1.16 million.
Restoration on Baltzley began a month later.
“Structurally, its back was broken,” McNair says of the house. The roof and top floor were a disaster, “complete with several generations of live and dead raccoons.”
The first step was to stop the leaks. Workers tore off the roofing—a mishmash of slate, asphalt shingles and tar patches—and replaced joists, framing and missing red slate tile.
Pretty much every room was in disrepair. Leaks around the chimneys had caused ceilings to disintegrate, with one bathroom ceiling having collapsed entirely.
The original plan was to move into Charles Castle during construction, but it, too, needed a new roof and rehab. So the couple lived in McNair’s Cabin John home for 15 months of the mammoth undertaking.
Because of Baltzley’s historic status, everything had to be done according to Montgomery County Historic Preservation Commission guidelines. Though McNair is quick to praise the nine-member, volunteer commission and its staff, he notes that he got seven different opinions at the first hearing on his proposed project. And it took 13 months to obtain approval for the big exterior changes: enclosing the circular porch with glass; building a kitchen wing in place of an 8-foot-by-11-foot covered porch that was not part of the original house; and adding a two-car garage and one-vehicle carport on the Mohican Road side for his Porsches.
Over two years, McNair would direct all the construction details, while he and Taylor jointly selected finishes and décor. She tends toward bold colors and big stripes; he favors earth tones. So they’d have to agree before moving forward with decorating decisions.
In March 2012, McNair’s Cabin John house sold and the couple moved into Charles while McNair set up a kitchen, master bedroom and bath at Baltzley for his bride-to-be.
After they were married in June, they immediately moved into Baltzley. Today, his daughter from a previous marriage, Kari, lives in Charles Castle while finishing a master’s degree in economics at American University; his son, Kyle, splits his time between Baltzley and his mother’s house while taking a gap year from college and working at Uncle Julio’s Rio Grande Cafe in Bethesda.
Since moving into Baltzley, McNair and Taylor have lived with anywhere from six to 35 people—carpenters, plumbers, electricians, plasterers and landscapers—working six days a week on the house.
Eight stonemasons worked full time for eight months restoring the castle’s granite blocks alone, McNair says. “Each joint is so labor intensive. You strike the joint, and then pick away around each stone. It’s ridiculously time-consuming and expensive.”
That’s why he calls his workers “Michelangelos.”
“This house really brings out their A game,” he says. “They’ll do something, massage it, and then redo it. Everyone wants to put in additional effort. It’s self-driven, too. It’s not like I’m cracking the whip.”