Chesapeake Modern
A couple from New York builds the contemporary house of their dreams on Tilghman Island, but curious locals wonder: Didn’t they forget something?

By Steve Bailey
Photographs by Celia Pearson

A woman who lives a few hundred yards across the road has a good view of the house my wife, Jane, and I built on Tilghman Island. She tells us that she monitored the construction closely. “I kept wondering when they’d put on the roof,” she says.

“They put in the windows and then the siding, and still no roof!” 

What she didn’t realize was that the house already had its roof—a flat one. Although flat roofs are not unheard of on Tilghman, ours, which is hidden by a parapet, draws the most comments from our curious neighbors. “What if there’s a heavy snow?” they ask.

Jane and I started planning this house when we were living in a 17-foot-wide, 1880s Italianate brownstone in Brooklyn, N.Y. We wanted something very different from that house, which had carved marble mantels, dark and narrow rooms, a lot of stairs, and ornate, hard-to-dust woodwork. We wanted something bright and modern—and we wanted to get out of New York.

I had spent the 1980s in Baltimore and visited the Eastern Shore a few times. I thought Jane would like it, too. I was right. It took only a few weekend visits before we found our Tilghman Island property, 6.19 acres on the east side of Black Walnut Cove. We bought the land in 2002 and started dreaming.

Mark Beck, of Beck, Powell & Parsons of Towson, Md., took our ideas and designed a house with almost everything we wanted. By happy coincidence, he lived and worked in Royal Oak, Md., about a half-hour from our property. We had sold the brownstone in 2005 and by August of 2007, with the plans all done, we moved full time to Talbot County, renting a house while Frank E. Daffin Inc. of Easton built our home. In October 2008, we moved in.

People often ask if we had trouble adjusting from New York to Tilghman, and the answer is always “no.” We’ve found friendly neighbors on Tilghman and other new friends elsewhere on the Shore. “The people here are so nice,” Jane often says, and she means it. After a career as a newspaper editor in New York, I’m working here as a freelance writer and communications consultant. Jane, who was a vice president at a magazine publisher, is a financial adviser with a major firm.

The house—we think of it as “Chesapeake Modern”—is a relatively modest 2,400 square feet with three bedrooms and two baths. Daffin allowed us to keep costs down by buying things ourselves, like most of the flooring from Lumber Liquidators and closet and pantry components from IKEA. We were so pleased with Daffin’s work and cooperative attitude that when metal columns for the main living area were shipped with the company’s name painted on them, we didn’t allow the names to be removed. We think of the house as a signed work of art.

Within our budget, we’ve tried to be as green as possible: cement-based siding, tankless water heaters, concrete countertops, Marmoleum (an all-natural alternative to vinyl) and bamboo floors, rain barrels, and a geothermal heating and cooling system. The house can be opened to the breezes that are almost constant on Tilghman thanks to a total of nine 8-foot-tall sliding glass doors, other large casement windows, and sliding glass panels between the main living area and a screened-in porch.

One friend compared the house to a boat because we’re always aware of the outdoor environment, which is alive with tundra swans and geese in winter, ospreys and egrets in summer, and great blue herons, bald eagles, and various hawks all year, not to mention wild turkeys, foxes, and deer. Coral-colored rays shoot through the clerestory windows at dawn, starting most days with a rosy glow. At sunset, the opposite side of the cove becomes a dark silhouette of trees sandwiched between the lilac sky and the lilac water.

A bunch of Tilghman’s 940-or-so residents visited the house during its construction, many of them puzzled by a room with no door to the rest of the house (it’s for the geothermal pumps), and the 17 chains that hang from the roof (no, they won’t hold the house down during a hurricane, but are supposed to transport roof runoff from scuppers to the ground). Oh, and for the record, the flat roof easily handled the big blizzards of 2010.

People always ask us if we miss New York. Sure, we miss friends, relatives, and ethnic restaurants. The city itself? No, not when we have everything we want here on Tilghman Island.

Steve Bailey, a former editor for The New York Times, teaches at Salisbury University.