Starting Over

Carol and Hugo Rizzoli rescued a dilapidated parsonage on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and turned it into a welcoming bed-and-breakfast

The house at Royal Oak sits on a small cape, about four miles southeast of historic St. Michaels, Md. This is a region of bays, inlets, creeks, and coves, and from the second floor it seems the surrounding landscape only recently emerged from the water's liquid grasp.

Carol and Hugo Rizzoli spent two years driving up and down tiny peninsulas here, looking for the ultimate fixer-upper—a house they could save and restore, then transform into a bed-and-breakfast. Hugo had recently shuttered a popular bookstore near Washington, D.C., and was ready for a second act on the Chesapeake Bay. Carol, managing editor of publications for the National Gallery of Art, was up for a change.

The decrepit, three-bedroom Victorian house they found on Royal Oak Road captured their interest. "Stately," is how Carol Rizzoli described it. "It had a presence in a shaky sort of way … a last-chance kind of place." And so, even though the Rizzolis couldn't explore every corner of the house (one upstairs room was locked from the inside and nailed shut), they agreed to a purchase price of $110,000.

Pine floors, original plasterwork, and fine architectural details convinced them that they'd made a good decision. Intending to focus on painting and minor ­carpentry for about six months, the ­Rizzolis imagined they could easily restore the neglected house to working order.

Their calendar was a bit optimistic.

It took two years, one incident of electrical shock, a life-threatening stroke, and about $90,000 before they could open for business in 2003. "Four times as long and six times as much as we estimated," Carol says.

Tools of the Trade

During renovation and restoration the Rizzolis used several products they recommend without reservation:

20 Mule Team Borax: "I used it on everything from painted floors to radiators to thrift store finds," Carol says, describing the household cleaner. She used Borax with plain white vinegar and water on painted wood and metal surfaces. "I used vinegar and water alone for wood floors." 20muleteamlaundry.com

Durabond 90: "Great for filling big holes in plaster, drywall, even concrete," Hugo says. "Pour some in a bucket, add water, and stir with a 'Jiffy Mixer' attachment on your electric drill." usg.com

Red Devil putty knife: "The ubiquitous back-pocket companion is ideal, not just for putty but for scraping almost anything." reddevil.com

SHEETROCK brand joint compounds: "The compound with the green lid for drywall, then the compound with the blue lid for a final top coat because it gives that 'finished' look," Hugo says. usg.com

The Rizzolis' house dates to 1883 and served as the residence for Benjamin F. Warren, a minister for the Methodist Episcopal Church. His congregation built to impress: At a time when windows represented a substantial investment, they installed an elaborate bay window off the living room and highlighted the interior and exterior with architectural details and surprises. (A secret staircase connects an upstairs bedroom with the kitchen below.) Making the most of local materials, crews formed bricks for the foundation on-site, and crafted sills from local trees.

But in subsequent decades the minister's ministry foundered, and during the Depression the parsonage was sold. By the time the Rizzolis bought the house, it had been rented, vacant, or on the market for seven years.

Three contractors who arrived to inspect the Rizzolis' new property suggested razing the place. "Just about every person came through and tossed down a cigarette and said, 'Tear it down,'" Hugo remembers. "The house looked like people had thrown their shoes through the walls."

Carol and Hugo hired the fourth contractor, the only one interested in preserving the best of the house and limiting changes to those that were absolutely necessary. He recommended repairing deteriorating oak sills and some of the floors, and suggested hiring a plumber and an electrician. Hugo (fully recovered from the aforementioned stroke) drew up a detailed to-do list, intending to complete much of the work himself. "We were smart enough not to do anything dangerous," Carol says, although Hugo accidentally touched a live wire once and received a shock that sent him across the room into a wall.

Hugo spent the next 24 months taking down walls, fixing doors, and refinishing pine floors and trim. Carol spent her weekends scraping and replacing glazing from windowpanes and planning how to transform two old sitting rooms into three new bathrooms. (She had plumbers run modern plumbing through the ceilings of the rooms below, to save the pine floors.) "It's the kind of stuff that they fast forward on television—that's what took us two years," Carol says.

During reconstruction, the Rizzolis found hundreds of cut, square nails in the walls, under the floors, and in the ceilings. They also found buckets and buckets of pennies on the roof, in the fireplace, and under the porch; no one has ever figured out why. But Carol says they did eventually solve one mystery: why lead weights were missing from many of the windows. During the Depression, she learned, St. Michaels watermen removed some original sash weights from windows around the house, and used them to anchor their fishing nets.

The Rizzolis credit their greatest restoration successes to family members who lent their time and expertise. Hugo's brother installed stainless steel countertops in the new kitchen. Carol's brother helped rebuild the porch and built a new window where the original proved beyond repair. Carol's son, Ethan, helped weed and clear brush, and her daughters, Lucy and Amanda, scraped rust off the 120-foot-long iron fence and painted it a shiny black. When the project was finished, Lucy handpainted guest room doors to denote the Elm, Linden, and Acorn rooms.

In 2003, the Rizzolis officially opened Royal Oak House, and now enjoy a peaceful calm after the storm of their restoration work. (Carol has written a chronicle of her experiences titled The House at Royal Oak, published by Black Dog & Leventhal.) "With an old house, you're never truly finished," she says. "It just becomes less of a preoccupation—which is reward enough."

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