The key is enormous—it conjures up images of medieval times, when purposeful things didn’t just appear in stores, they had to be forged over hot coals for hours on end. It juts out of the keyhole in the massive wooden door, a fastidious position largely unchanged for well-over two hundred years. The veritable gatekeeper of the manse—this key, and the hardware on nearly every door and window–have remained intact. So have the Flemish bond bricks that comprise the interior and exterior walls, much of the stucco façade added later, and the wavy glass window panels that comprise the near floor-to-ceiling windows in every room of the three-story structure. The manor house remains unscathed by time, climate, and the treading of thousands of footsteps amidst her halls. She is fiercely loyal to her origination—in fact, the only obvious alteration to this property throughout the centuries has been ownership—and it’s about to change once more.
Chanceford Hall is a National Register of Historic Places Landmark. It sits on its own park-like setting near the center of the Eastern Shore town of Snow Hill, MD. On October the 8th at 9:33 a.m.—this great beauty is set for auction. However, this isn’t a story of a once unparalleled masterpiece of architecture fallen to ruin—forced into the hands of an auctioneer for the highest price. It’s quite the opposite. During her long and lavish history, Chanceford Hall has remained stalwart—seeming as though the outside world and all of its perils continue, but cannot affect the safe haven within. The upcoming auction is simply the next chapter in this architectural novella, a parallel story akin to the life of her current owner, Randy Ifft.
In 1999 Randy Ifft and wife Alice made their way to the Eastern Shore via Chicago. Randy had maintained a successful historical architectural firm there, and Alice was an executive with Random House for twenty years. Both were natives of Western Pennsylvania, and vacationed on the Eastern Shore during their childhoods. Randy grew up on a 900-acre historic farm—the love of architectural history influenced his life at a young age. After attending school at Carnegie Melon, he and Alice moved to the Windy City and established their successful careers.
Throughout the years, Randy and Alice renovated three personal historical properties before coming to Chanceford. A standout–an old sawmill near Toulouse, in the south of France caught their carefully trained eyes, and the plan became to purchase the property, renovate it, and eventually retire there. They renovated and maintained the property for five years, before selling—as it turns out, they were nowhere close to retirement. This was a couple that embraced life, and all potential opportunities, even if it meant uprooting their entire existence.
The Ifft’s chose the Eastern Shore as their next locale based on their fond childhood memories of vacationing in the area, the element of light that encompassed the landscape, and the historical architecture coupled with the slower pace of small town life. Chanceford Hall became available, becoming the catalyst in the Ifft’s next move.
The current furniture in Chanceford Hall didn’t convey with property as with some historic homes, Randy had to furnish the entire 6,000 square feet. Also an interior designer, he brought personal pieces and purchased the rest of the furniture as a mixture of period antiques and contemporary pieces to fit his design aesthetic. The entire floor plan and furniture placement was laid out from Chicago. Perhaps the biggest project was the packing up and moving of the Ifft’s thousands of books—gathered over the years from Alice’s work with Random House, and Randy’s collection of architecture volumes.
Once the Ifft’s arrived they opened up a bookstore aptly named “Alice,” in the heart of Snow Hill. With the bookstore functioning as the couple’s joint venture, and Randy’s historical architecture firm reopened as Chanceford Associates–the couple intended to use Chanceford Hall as a primary residence. The lure of the property ended up influencing the couple’s original decision—the home seemed to demand an audience, they felt compelled to share the beauty of the architecture, the history of the home, and their love of books with visitors.
The Ifft’s had a policy with their guests, who found the home to be so relaxing that they often disappeared into books, forgetting the outside world entirely. If a guest couldn’t finish a book they began reading at Chanceford, the Ifft’s sent them home with a self addressed stamped envelope in order to return the volume once complete—every book lent, has since been returned.
Tragically, and all too soon, Alice, a vivacious individual, lost her life very suddenly to cancer, after just twelve years at Chanceford Hall. In the wake of her passing, Randy has realized it’s time for him to move on. Amidst his still palatable grief, he reflects on the move from Chanceford,
“Life is a journey, an adventure, and a gift, and you have to embrace it.”
The next chapter in Randy Ifft’s journey again follows the tale of an architectural gem—this time to the exclusive Washington D.C. National Historical Landmark building known as the Kennedy Warren. The Art Deco building is a vast difference from the Greek Revival and Federal interior home that is Chanceford Hall—but perhaps that’s part of the process, arrived at through the devastating emotion of grief, and the comforting love for the creative genius in architecture, throughout all historical periods.
Chanceford Hall History
Chanceford Hall’s beginning is somewhat akin to local folklore. Several historical publications, as well as the historical plaque on the home list the established date as 1759. However, the National Register of Historic Places, and several notable books indicate the home was likely completed from 1792-1793. As with homes of this stature and historical period, they sometimes take many years, even decades and several owners to complete, which can often account for a discrepancy in the true age of the building. More likely in this case, is the fact that all pertinent historical records on the origination of the property were lost in a disastrous fire in 1893 that engulfed the downtown area of Snow Hill, destroying all early historic records, housed in the courthouse. For the purposes of this article, the dates of 1792-93 will be used to elaborate on the history of the property.
According to Paul Touart, in “Along the Seaboard Side,” James Rownd Morris—clerk of Worcester County Courts, built Chanceford Hall. Morris held a politically prominent position, and he was quite wealthy. Combine Morris’s status with wife Leah nee Winder—of the prominent family from Somerset County–whose father later became a senator and governor of the state, forming what would have been quite the power couple in the late 1700’s.
Touart states, in reference t o the building of Chanceford,
“It seemed to recall her [Leah Winder Morris] girlhood home—Bloomsbury, Somerset County. Both the familial home, and Chanceford Hall were temple front houses—the prominence of the families and the structures themselves are likely to have inspired similar Eastern Shore architecture for the next sixty years.”
James Morris owned a large amount of personal objects. Most poignant, were volumes of books—a rarity most likely enjoyed only by the very wealthy—but a fixture at Chanceford in her earliest days, recalled over two hundred years later when the Ifft’s moved in with their extensive personal library.
James Morris died in 1795, presumably only two years after Chanceford was complete. His wife Leah and executer’s of Morris’s will sold the property, per his wishes, setting of the trend in ownership that would partially define Chanceford’s history.
The property first changed hands to a Colonel Handy, and after his death it passed to Judge William Whittington, who lived in the property, calling it “Ingleside,” until the 1820’s. During Whittington’s reign at Chanceford, Snow Hill was set to be bombed by the British during the War of 1812. Since Chanceford was comprised entirely of Flemish Bond bricks, and the rest of the buildings in Snow Hill were made of wood and would surely be destroyed, all important town records were moved to Chanceford for safe keeping.
Whittington’s daughter Sally and her husband, William Tingle became the next owners. The Tingle’s are likely responsible for adding the stucco finish to the exterior—an additional detail said to reflect wealth and prominence in the mid-1800’s. The property remained in Tingle hands until Sarah died in 1874. She transferred the property to her son Eugene, who within a few months of his mother’s passing, sold it to Hugh Sanders Stevenson.
During the final open house at Chanceford, prior to the upcoming sale, a woman visited in an obvious state of reflection and near awe. She commented to owner Randy Ifft that the property had belonged to her family over 100 years prior—she a descendant of Hugh Stevenson. She had returned that day looking to validate an old family story. One of the Stevenson daughters had become engaged, and it was said that her sisters didn’t believe the stone in the ring was a real diamond. According to family lore, the daughter used the diamond to carve her initials into one of the window panels in the house. Since nearly every panel is original, it would have been possible to validate the tale—however she was only able to find initials carved into wood.
The property remained with the Stevenson family until 1906, when Ella H. Riggin of Los Angeles bought it—making her the first “come here,”owner—a designation Snow Hill locals use fondly to describe those who move from other areas, although with the Eastern Shore dialect, it sounds more like “come ere.” John Warner Staton became the owner who would re-name the property Chanceford. Subsequent owners followed until 1986 when Chanceford turned into a business, a Bed and Breakfast. In 1999 the Ifft’s assumed ownership.
Entering Chanceford Hall today, is much like visiting in the late 1700’s—very little has changed. The transverse hall still extends across the front entrance, revealing the hand-hewn stairwell that elevates all the way to the third floor. The stairwell is just one example of the fine woodwork including detailed floor and ceiling moldings, and personalized mantels—the latter offers a distinction to the bedrooms. The six rooms, though similar in size and appearance could be differentiated even now, due to intricacies of the mantles on the fireplaces. The gentleman of the house would have the largest mantle, while the lady of the house would have a smaller, yet more detailed carving. The guest or children’s bedroom mantels were simple in comparison.
The layout of the house has changed throughout the years, as the functionality of houses in general have required. Originally, the front portion of the house was for personal use; the back was where one entertained. This meant that the current kitchen in Chanceford was actually the ballroom, complete with a bouncing floor, a necessity of the times when entertainment was achieved through evenings of elaborate and festive dancing in personal homes. Now, the modern appliances mask the dancing that once took place, but a trip to the basement reveals the past. An enormous fireplace remains, so large at least five men could fit inside, where once a large caldron certainly hung, from the years when the kitchen was in the basement, the ballroom above. As for the dancing, a steel beam in the ceiling, added to reinforce the bouncing floor, reaffirms the once celebratory nature of the room above.
The second floor of the hyphen, connecting the front and back of the house was a later twentieth century addition, resulting in that bedroom above being the only one of six without a fireplace—two fireplaces even exist in the original post and beam attic. Also added much later, in the 1970’s were a lap pool, carport and garage building, and a solarium.
The house originally fronted to the river, but the town’s development around Chanceford has removed her waterfront view. She now sits amidst an acre of property, which boasts the third largest black walnut tree in the state of Maryland.
It is remarkable that nearly every pane of wavy glass, every key, every piece of original woodwork remains with the house after so many years, and so many owners. This property, despite the turnover, is clearly revered by all those who have crossed her threshold, either as visitors or residents.
Chanceford Hall has a sense of calm that envelops the property. Like an all-knowing, all encompassing embrace, Chanceford feels—quite simply, safe. The experience of even visiting Chanceford is like being in an old church that has survived the years, or a museum that has protected the contents and records of history. Beyond her other worldly qualities, Chanceford still feels like a home—but one that is understood to remain for a greater purpose.
As Randy Ifft reflects,
“It has truly been an honor to be a steward of this property.”
At the October 8th auction, Chanceford Hall will change hands again. But rest assured that Chanceford Hall sustains a lasting power that supersedes any mortal change. Shortly after arriving at Chanceford, Randy Ifft who came from Chicago–land of tornadoes, but not hurricanes —became fearful when a hurricane approached the coast. He asked neighbor, Randy Coates if he should be concerned. Coates reassured Ifft that he was the person who should have the least worry,
“If Chanceford goes we all go.”
Some homes are defined by the families who live there. Others—historical and architectural masterpieces—delineate the landscape they were built upon, the town that surrounds, and all those who enter through their hallowed doors. Such is the property known as Chanceford Hall.