A $25 Million Mansion With Secret Tunnels and a Chapel

On a rainy April day in 2002, Maxine Davis Phillips and Steve Phillips visited an abandoned friary on a 23-acre hillside in Annapolis, Md.

“The listing said ‘26 bedrooms,’ and I was like: We have six kids, not 26, and most have married and moved away already,” she recalls. Her then-fiancee suggested they swing by the property, anyway. Perhaps, he offered, they could tear down the house and build a lovely new one.

When they arrived and began to tour the listing’s Georgian mansion, dormitory, chapel, and outbuildings, Phillips says that Steve, the president and chief executive officer of Phillips Seafood Restaurants and founder of Phillips Foods, began to rhapsodize about how “no rain was coming in, even though it had been abandoned for a decade.” She was primarily concerned with “the cobwebs and the raccoons.”

The raccoons lost out to the roof.

“My husband is an impulsive man,” Phillips says. “As he’s wandering through, he goes, ‘Let’s make an offer.’” There was, she acknowledges, “a lot of emotion in the offer, which is not what they tell you to do with real estate,” but Phillips says her husband was “so excited about the property.”

What she didn’t know until later is that he was also excited about the building. “Just to be clear,” Phillips says, “I was not.”

They paid $2.5 million for the house and grounds, at which point they went back to visit with the goal, Phillips says, to “see what we bought.”

There was the mansion, built in the 1920s; the chapel, built in the 1950s; the dormitory; several garages and sheds; a huge hillside filled with overgrown paths and gardens; and a dock near a heavily overgrown tennis court.

The renovation, Phillips says, took “five years, six months, and 27 days. I was counting.”

That was partially because she says the entire effort cost them $32 million—$18 million above their initial budget—and also because “we weren’t married when we bought this, and the idea was that we would get married in our new home.” As the years dragged on, Phillips says she decided “enough is enough,” and the couple was married in a small ceremony at their former home. (Once they had completed the house, they threw another party.)

Now, 18 years after buying the compound, they’ve decided to sell it, listing with TTR Sotheby’s International Realty for $24.9 million. “We’re both getting older,” says Phillips, “and my husband has become an offshore fisherman, and it’s hard to have that lifestyle and a home that requires someone here who loves it and enjoys it.”

Epicurean Delights

The property was said to be a major stopping point on the underground railroad, due its proximity to the Severn River and an extensive tunnel system (more on that later). In 1911, the land was purchased by E. Bartlett Hayward, a local grandee whose fortune was derived from casting 75-millimeter shell casings for French field guns during World War I. 

Hayward built the mansion that’s on the property today, and used it for various bacchanals. Apparently, Hayward once threw a 72-hour-long cook-off, was a part-time bootlegger (possibly for his own consumption), and played epic, high-stakes poker games.

However epicurean Hayward’s lifestyle, it paled in comparison with the property’s next full-time occupants, a group of Franciscan friars. (Hayward sold the property in 1945, it changed hands over the next five years, and the friars arrived in 1950.)

Phillips was stunned to discover that the friars had installed a bowling alley in the chapel’s basement. (“It seems really weird to me, but I guess they didn’t bowl during services,” she says.) They also built the tennis court near the dock and installed multiple massive, outdoor pizza ovens. “How scenic was this lifestyle,” Phillips says. “It doesn’t sound like they had a rough life.”

Despite—or perhaps because of—their mountaintop idyll, the friary was disbanded in the 1980s and sold to two local investors.

The investors sold it to the Japanese government in 1989, which turned it into Yokohama Academy, a boarding school for young Japanese boys. When the neighborhood got wind of the major new school, major community opposition arose, Phillips says, forcing the school to close. The compound was bought by a further set of owners who held onto it, realized that restoration would cost too much, and sold it to the Phillipses, who suddenly found themselves part-owners, part-archeologists as they unearthed the property’s history.

Hidden Treasure

“It started almost like being on a treasure hunt,” Phillips says. “We’d pull down wallboard and find these beautiful old fireplaces—and gorgeous plaster ceilings that had been covered up with drop ceilings. The dining room’s woodwork had been boarded up; even some of the floors had been obscured.”

There was also, Phillips says, “an old rusted safe. So my husband is Mr. Engineer and starts whacking at it with a crowbar, and sure enough, he finds a false door.” Through the false door, they found a tunnel that leads to the water. Already aware of Hayward’s reputation as a bootlegger and international munitions dealer, the couple hoped to “find bullion, or at least some good rum,” Phillips says.

Because she was “the smallest,” her husband and contractors made her follow the tunnel into a series of underground rooms. “I was just waiting to step on a skeleton, but we found nothing interesting,” she says.

The couple decided to remove the dormitory, which lacked architectural and historic appeal, and replace it with an infinity pool. The chapel was momentarily on the chopping block, too—“Who needs a church?” thought Phillips initially—but once they started spending time on the property, “it just seemed to sort of belong to the rest of the house.”

They did, however, remove the church’s confessional. “My husband thought I’d make him sit in it,” Phillips quips.

The rest of the house was meticulously restored: Horsehair plaster ceilings were replaced with other horsehair plaster ceilings; pine boards were sourced to match existing flooring; and marble samples were taken to Carrara, Italy, to be matched with existing mantlepieces.

A Few Flourishes

They also made additions. The bowling alley was replaced with an underground pool and spa; they added a small funicular to take them up and down to the waterfront; they built a series of structures on the property, including a teak pavilion in the forest; and they built out the library, paneled the billiards room, and constructed a new, outdoor kitchen.

With all their modifications, the home covers 26,000 square feet. It has seven bedrooms, eight bathrooms, and dozens of entertaining spaces.

For all that, Phillips says that they haven’t used the house for many parties. “It was designed for people to entertain a lot, but it’s a little weird because we don’t,” she says. The couple are avid sailors and travel often to Europe, so the house has become “a kind of retreat.”

Letting Go (or Not)

Eight years ago, the couple put the house on the market for $32 million.

Several serious buyers were interested in the property, Phillips says, but prospective purchasers consistently ran into an insurmountable problem: Phillips’s husband refused to leave the house when buyers came to tour it.

“I would go outside and read a book,” when buyers came, Phillips says. “Steve would always be present.” In asides to buyers, it became clear that her husband was not ready to let go. “He’d be saying things that were a kind of passive resistance,” she says. “Finally, the agent came to me and said: ‘Steve doesn’t want to sell the house, does he?’” Phillips recalls.

The couple eventually took it off the market.

Now though, Phillips insists they are both very ready to sell the home. While the friary “represents a big part of our life,” Phillips says, she won’t miss “having to manage this much property.”

It will, she adds, “be much harder for my husband.”

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