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Brown-Shugart House: A local legend welcomes a new family

Not too many people can refer to the ballroom when talking about their homes. John and Renee Robb not only have a ballroom but also spend every night sleeping in their “throne room.” The ballroom in their large Victorian home has a fourteen-foot high ceiling. Four floor-to-ceiling windows on two sides of the room open into doorways and onto large porches for additional entertaining space. The “throne room” or master bedroom also has fourteen-foot ceilings – a height that is needed in order to accommodate the nine-and-a-half-foot tall carved walnut headboard on the “throne” which was acquired from the Russian Embassy.

Renee is sitting on the floor of what once was the formal dining room — a 22’ x 23’ room that is now used by the young couple and their three young children as the family room. This seems to be the only room in which the chandelier has been removed; the sole clue that it once was the center of family meals is a small servants’ bell on the wall near the back hall and kitchen. Renee is rummaging through a box of old mementos given to her by a friend of the previous owner of the house. John is sitting on the couch looking through pictures of this former mistress of the house, Millie Shugart, at her 100th birthday celebration in 1995.

Although they never met Millie, who died shortly before her 101st birthday, they have an obvious affection for the woman who has become somewhat legendary in Charles Town. Apparently, Millie needed that ballroom – some of the locals recall her many fabulous parties at which she could be seen jitterbugging into the wee hours – and this was when she was well into her nineties.

Neighbor Peggy Butler remembers the parties, but also remembers the deep respect she and so many others held for a woman who was known to be very educated and very kind. Out of the box, Renee pulls stacks of pictures of famous artists and their paintings, tokens from the days when Millie worked as an art therapist for mental patients. And then out comes an advertisement for the auction that was held at the house in September of 1996 — quite a long listing of fine antiques and collectibles — and Renee and John begin to recall their story of how they came to own this amazing house.

At one point in their search for the perfect house, the Robbs had eight realtors in three different states working for them. The criteria seemed simple: a large Victorian or farmhouse as close to its original form as possible within an hour’s commute to Washington, D.C. However, their journey took them through over a hundred different houses, each one lacking in some way and just not quite charming enough to make up for the drawbacks.

Their first obstacle was selling the house in which they were living. It had been on the market for more than a year when a frustrated Renee turned to her faith. Trying a ritual that many Catholics before her had found successful, she buried a statue of St. Joseph in their front yard, upside-down, facing north, and prayed a special prayer to the patron saint. She also changed her nightly prayers, which were filled with specific requests, and began to ask instead for a general well being for her family. Three months later, they sold their house.

The search for their dream house was not yet over, though. After living with Renee’s parents for eight months and looking at house after disappointing house, John was just about ready to give up and build a new house. And then they were shown the Brown-Shugart house in Charles Town for the first time. Renee still recalls the goosebumps she felt — along with the feeling of being overwhelmed and intimidated. Although the vacant 15-room, 4,000-square-foot Victorian was in obvious need of a new paint job, had no insulation, needed new wiring, and on and on and on, its appeal was just too strong for the couple to be dissuaded. On April Fools’ Day of 1997, they bought the house.

Built in 1883 by Forrest Washington Brown, a prominent Charles Town attorney, the elaborate façade of the house is typical of many houses built during the Victorian period. The colors are bold: dark green German clapboard siding, salmon-pink colored standing-seam roof and front door. The large, 2/2 hooded windows are trimmed in cream, as are the turned posts, brackets, and spindlework on the expansive porches. Standing on South Samuel Street facing the house, its grandness is emphasized by a long, arrow-straight brick path which lines up with the soaring three-story square tower topped with a weathervane— an affect that sends the eye from the earth skyward.

On the tour, Renee and John have obviously become grounded in reality and begin discussing practicalities like paint. A vacation to Cape May, New Jersey quickly turned into a mission to find just the right paint colors for their house. Renee fell in love with the color scheme of one Victorian painted lady there, and John found that exact color scheme in a paint brochure. The fun part was touring the resort town and choosing paint colors with names like Abbey Green, Ruby Glass, Revival Gold; the project itself, however, promises to be a massive undertaking since the couple plans to do it themselves. John, though, is determined, and plans to engage in one section at a time. Renee has already painted the iron fence bordering the front of the property. She chose black with gold accents, planning to use the same metallic gold for some of the intricate details on the house.

The foyer of the house is a 13’ x 21’ room which boasts incredibly detailed woodwork, a grand staircase, and an elaborate mantle surrounding one of eight fireplaces found in the home. Two arched doorways on the right lead guests to the ballroom, which Renee and John have furnished with a complete six-piece Victorian parlor set from 1883 — the date the house was built. A large 1883 bible sits in a corner of the room underneath a picture of the Blessed Mother. The windows are still draped with the same antique lace curtains that were there when the Robbs bought the house, a little dingy and tattered, but one of the couple’s sentimental links to the home’s past.

Arched doorways to the left of the foyer lead to a front formal parlor with bay window (now used by the Robb family as their formal dining room) and the huge formal dining room (now the Robbs’ family room). A back hall leads to the eat-in-kitchen with charming circa 1950’s appliances, a pantry, a rear-entrance, a library, and a back stairway. Transoms top most of the doorways in the house — an old method of air circulation.

Perhaps the second most interesting aspect of the upstairs, after the throne room, are the two bathtubs. On the back left side of the house, there is a bathroom with a four-and-a-half foot clawfoot bathtub — shorter than the standard size. Pocket doors open from this room into a bedroom with corner fireplace. On the other side of the bedroom, pocket doors open to another bathroom which holds a six-and-a-half foot long clawfoot tub — quite a bit longer than standard. Speculation concludes that these baths were “his and her” baths.

The second floor holds a total of five bedrooms. Steps from the second floor lead to a huge attic and the tower. The cellar in the house once held a billiards room. Renee’s presence can be seen throughout the house in the Victorian decoration of each room — she is the former owner-operator of a store in Maryland called The Cherub’s Closet which, appropriately, is a Victorian gift shop. John’s presence can also be seen and felt, albeit not as obviously. An electrician, by trade, he has begun the laborious process of bringing the house electrically up to code, just one of the countless updating and maintenance jobs he has tackled.

Renee is convinced that providence led them to this house, to South Samuel Street, to Charles Town, West Virginia — a place she never dreamed she would end up living. She feels her prayers were answered, prayers that at one time included living in a neighborhood with sidewalks where her children can safely trick-or-treat. She got even more than she asked for and was overwhelmed by the welcome she received by her neighbors and the townspeople. And, happily, the Brown-Shugart House is once again a home.