Ocean Hall is the oldest documented masonry structure in Maryland. Built in 1703, it was quite remarkable for its day, a period when impermanent earth-fast or post-in-the-ground construction and stylistic elements of English medieval architecture were more the norm. Ocean Hall reflects the transition to permanently constructed dwellings in the emerging Georgian style, and is one of a few known extant examples in the nation of a structure built utilizing a medieval cruck roof formation.
The one-and-a-half-story, five-bay house is of unusually generous proportions, measuring over fifty-four-feet long and over twenty-two-feet wide. The house has a single-cell-deep, center passage plan, which was common in the early Chesapeake region. The upper story is supported by two pairs of cruck or arched principal rafters (also called “blades”) formed from split sections of the same curving tree. These crucks run parallel to the wall, curving below the wall plate where they are joined by mortise and tenon into the tie beams that also form the tops of the partition walls of the center passage. The paired blades cross to either side of the (squared) ridge pole, which was uncommon in this region. The rafters extending from the ridge pole are supported by large purlins secured to the outside face of the cruck members by cradle-like brackets. Crucks originated as a medieval English building technique in the construction of simple impermanent huts, but was later applied to more permanent cottages as late as the eighteenth century. Because the inward curving walls of the cruck limited interior space, they were later used in the “upper cruck” formation to support the roof only, terminating at the tie beam and used in conjunction with vertical walls for greater internal capacity, as seen here in Ocean Hall.
Noteworthy features of Ocean Hall indicative of the early Georgian period include its Flemish bond brick with decorative glazed headers, molded water table, interior end chimneys, twelve-over-twelve casement windows with round-arch lintels, and a steeply pitched gable roof. Interior features of note include its high ceilings, generously proportioned center hall and flanking rooms, and the parlor’s boxed cornice, paneled walls, and large open hearth fireplace.
Ocean Hall’s date of construction was determined through a groundbreaking study by Herman John Heikkenen in 1979 using dendrochronology or tree-ring analysis. Based on its date, Ocean Hall is a rare survivor from the period of early settlement to this region, and is incidentally located in proximity to the site of St. Mary’s City, the original settlement of seventeenth-century provincial Maryland. The house was built by the Slye family of merchants, who conducted trade in both the Chesapeake region and in London. They built Ocean Hall to overlook the Wicomico River, although it is somewhat obliquely sited to the river, a factor attributed to its placement within a seventeenth-century Baroque town plan for “Wicocomoco,” which has long since ceased to exist. It sat between Bluff and White points, a period painting of which appears in the overmantel in the parlor.
The property was part of Bushwood Manor (also referred to as Bushwood Lodge), which was originally part of the St. Clement’s Manor grants to Thomas Gerrard in 1639 (1,030 acres) and in 1642 (6,000 acres). Gerrard gave Bushwood to his daughter, Susanna, when she married Robert Slye in 1652. It later passed to their son, Captain Gerard Slye, who began construction of Ocean Hall while he was living in London but died before its completion. His son and heir, Gerard Slye II, completed it; and the property passed to his son, George, upon his death in 1733. George Slye willed the manor to his nephew, Edmund Plowden, who built Bushwood Manor on the property probably soon thereafter. Ocean Hall remained in the Plowden family into the twentieth century. Ocean Hall underwent restoration by the current owners and remains a private residence.
Boyd, James Carroll. Ocean Hall: Discovery of an American Classic. Printed by author, 2011.
“Designation Listing Selection Guide, Domestic 1: Vernacular Houses.” English Heritage(April 2011).
“Ocean Hall,” St. Mary’s County, Maryland. Historic American Buildings Survey, National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, 1976. From Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (HABS No. MD-323).
Owens, Christopher, and J. Richard Rivoire, “Ocean Hall,” St. Mary’s County, Maryland. National Register of Historic Places Inventory–Nomination Form, 1973. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C.