After decades, house of dreams is finally completed

Contractor and builder Paul Thornton joins the crew that helped repair and remodel the Ed Corbett House near Princess Anne. From left, Chuck Dalton, Stephen Harrison, John Sullivan, Thornton, Brannigan Thornton and Michael Ross.

Years ago, it was a peculiar sight from Mount Vernon Road, west of Princess Anne. Across a field of early autumn’s golden weeds, near the edge of the woods, sat a two-story wooden house with an end of brick. It was distinctive with its patterned wall of red and blue bricks and massive chimney.

The field is gone now, replaced by trees. The house remains, hidden from view.

It looks like a structure from the early 1700s. It was a house of dreams, a house unlike any other on the Eastern Shore. All of the woodwork, from the foundation up, was custom made by the man who also laid the thousands of bricks on each end of the house.

Owner Ed Corbett of Crisfield, carpenter, barber, decoy maker, furniture maker, antiquarian, painting restorer and eventual bricklayer, would spend 28 years building it.

It never became a home.

Corbett died before he could complete it.

It sat empty for eight years after Corbett’s death in 2011. Weather soon took a toll on the place that quickly became home to a few animals. Fancy exterior woodwork rotted, and rain dripped inside.

Its slow demise was especially difficult for Steve Barnes, of near Princess Anne. He had helped Corbett, on and off, for those 28 years to build this one-of-a-kind house on a 9-acre lot.

For nearly 28 years, Steve Barnes of near Princess Anne helped craftsman Ed Corbett of Crisfield built this 18th-century-style home. Corbett never finished or lived in the house.

Barnes, 74, is among the few remaining, who helped Corbett, who knows the story behind the dream.

Barnes sat on the steps in the Great Room leading to the second-floor bedchamber. There are three traditional steps to the door and beyond that, they narrow and twist sharply, the familiar “break-your-neck” stairway of the past.

Those pine treads, Barnes said were made from wood from houses “found all over the Shore.” They had the right age and the right look to be convincing.

He remembers the complexities and challenges Corbett faced getting the steps just right.

They seem so far away now – those hot days and hours of grunt work, and the evidence that they ever happened is in the rough-textured, unassuming steps that lead to yesterday.

 Barnes said their friendship developed through a shared interest in antiquing, and they went on outings together exploring the 18th-century architecture of the Shore. Soon Corbett was teaching Barnes woodworking techniques.

At the time, Corbett was gathering ideas for his unique house. One structure that “mesmerized” him, Barnes said, was the circa 1700-1725 Powell-Benston (or Tilghman House) near Rehobeth, regarded as one of the oldest surviving houses dating to the early 1700s in Somerset County.

“He photographed and measured it, made drawings and notes, especially the Great Room,” Barnes said, not long before the room was acquired, in the 1960s, by the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts of Winston-Salem, N.C., It was rebuilt in the museum and is still featured today. The house was later destroyed.

Barnes’ friends, Mike Miller, and the late Jimmy Windsor, both of Somerset, helped Corbett remove wood from early structures to recycle into his house. “I was only too glad to help because of what I was learning,” Barnes said. “I couldn’t wait to get off work and go directly to the house to work. I was infatuated with Ed’s woodworking skills and his knowledge of 18th-century homes. It was unbelievable.”

Barnes located aged floorboards that Corbett reworked to become the flooring for his 16- by 17-foot Great Room and rooms upstairs. He took great pains to minimize all things modern, light switches and receptacles held to a discreet minimum. No, the winding stairway isn’t spacious and straightforward, but it is an exact copy of the 18th-century stairway of the Powell-Benston House. It was genuine. Just climbing it, ever so slowly, instantly transports one to the time when the Powell-Benston house was the cat’s meow of its day.

The original house featured rare, leaded-glass, casement windows. Corbett knew he had to incorporate them into the house, and worked with another man to place small pieces of glass he cut into lead strips. The windows remain an architectural highlight of the house.

Self-taught craftsman and mason Ed Corbett, shown in this late 1970s photo, laid the brickwork for his one-of-a-kind 18th-century-style building. He worked on it for 28 years and never finished.

The small windows that make a statement aren’t modern thermal insulated windows. They are exact copies of the windows people peered through 320 years ago. No modern substitute can impart that same feeling. Corbett wanted things to “look right.”

Like the twisting, small, enclosed staircase to the second floor, the impressive fireplace isn’t needed today, but it is crucial to the recreation of a moment in time and to impart a feeling of authenticity.

Corbett wasn’t about building a modern cookie-cutter home. He wanted to recreate the look, feel and authenticity of a period Eastern Shore house.

“He didn’t have much money and was always struggling. We scavenged period bricks to build the two ends and chimney,” Barnes recalled. Unable to afford a mason, Corbett taught himself to lay bricks, build a complex chimney and tackled the tough task of including a highly detailed design using alternate brick colors to create the pattern. ”I used to clean bricks, hand him bricks on the scaffolding, and he stayed right with it.”

“Also helping was Winslow, a great guy from Princess Anne who worked closely with me and Ed,” Barnes said. “A friend from his high school years, Lawson, was there as well. These were the kinds of folks Ed relied on.”

In August 2019, well-known Somerset County builder and contractor Paul Thornton bought the 9-acre acre property and house from Corbett’s heirs.

Owner Paul Thornton, center, is joined by workers Calvin Lowe, left, and Howard Smith, in the Great Room of the Ed Corbett House.

“It was really in poor shape when I got it,” Thornton said. “The only room finished was the living room (Great Room).”

 It took Thornton several months to clear the site of brush and marginal trees, and to repair the house and build a two-story 14-by-16-foot addition, boosting the living space to about 2,300 square feet. Thornton also put in a new 4-inch well and added a deck.

To make the house livable and functional, Thornton had to reconfigure a few rooms and remove some of Corbett’s woodwork. “One thing is for sure, Ed really had perseverance to do this specialty work,” he said. “We used lumber from a pine tree that was on the property to do the flooring in some of the rooms.”

To earn money to build the house, Corbett worked on historic and period homes in the area. He was hired by the late noted antiques collector and interior designer Robert Withey, in the 1970s, to restore Bounds Lott, his mid-18th century home near Allen.

Withey’s son, Rob, of Florida, said the builder was well qualified.

“He had a lot of knowledge about 18th century architecture, an interest in it, an eye for it. Ed did expert work, but was painfully slow, yet methodical. He was a bit unreliable. You never knew when he was coming to work. My father hired him around 1971 to be the master carpenter to restore Bounds Lott.  He worked on it for eight years,” Withey said.

Corbett’s measured pace came into play as he worked on his house. It was slow but sure, but soon the years were passing faster, and Corbett was getting slower.

The craftsman never seemed to realize his days of working on his house were numbered.

“We talked about it,” Barnes explained. “He couldn’t get past accepting that you couldn’t do all the things you wanted to do in a lifetime. He said, ‘You know, your life is going to end just about the time you get everything in order.’ He never knew he was going to get old, but his friends did. He never thought that way, never realizing the years were dwindling. He always expected to live there, but it never happened.”

Barnes was curious about the source of the spark that created the history-loving personality that became Ed Corbett.

“He grew up near the famous decoy carvers Lem and Steve Ward, and got to know them. They encouraged him to be a barber and decoy carver. They changed his life. He managed to buy a few decoys from them, and in the later years of his life, sold them to get money to work on his house.”

Corbett, 80, died on July 8, 2011. His legacy is this remarkable house.

In the empty Great Room shadows come and go, as sunlight emerges then hides among slow-moving July clouds, peeping through a multi-paned window of wavy glass and sweeping softly, like a cat’s tail, over the wide pine boards. The interior of the 6-foot-wide and 4-foot-tall fireplace lights up, then details dissolve into darkness, as shadows grow and fade.

With lots of scrap wood to burn, Corbett often made a fire, pieces of centuries-old heart pine, rich with aromatic sap that crackled as it burned.

Those hours of watching the warming flames was the closest he would come to knowing the intimate soul of the house he built.

The worked wood and bricks came with their own secret stories, of generations of folks who created them and lived their lives within their protection. Imbued in the wood, the memories of births and deaths, love, anger, laughter and tears of so many strangers that struggled through life within these walls. Corbett had preserved them all in the bones of his house.

The Ed Corbett House is being offered at $450,000 by ERA Martin Associates. A separate, almost 13-acre lot adjoining the property is also for sale by the owner.

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