Skip to main content

What's Up Magazine

In Beautiful Stone

Jan 09, 2012 12:05AM ● By Anonymous
Dating back to the late-1800s, three generations of the Miller family of Annapolis built a dozen homes made of stone, mined within the county, on a piece of farmland near the present-day Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. Today, most builders would not consider building a home without drawings, even if the county permitting office would allow it. But things were different in the late 1800s. Like many home builders built during the 19th century, John Ambrose Miller got an idea into his head of what he wanted and simply started construction. Unlike most of builders in the Chesapeake region, however, the master mason—who had been working on cathedrals in Baltimore—chose neither brick nor wood. He built his home of stone.

It was the first of a dozen stone homes he, his son, and his grandson would build on a piece of farmland in Annapolis between the 1890s and the mid 1960s. That farmland is now within the city limits, tucked away in a small neighborhood near the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. Of the dozen stone houses built by the Miller family, the family still retains ownership of seven. Varying in color from light brown to red-brick to almost burgundy, the stonework for all of the homes was laid in the rugged, random mosaic style characteristic of Adirondack architecture. Each reflects the aesthetic of the time in which it was built and the hands of the Miller who built it.

Inside one of the houses John Ambrose built in 1928, a floor to ceiling mantle breast is ornamented with two side shelves and a special cubby in the over mantel, which was used to warm jugs of spirits. It also features an arched mantel shelf of irregular length stones that mimic the curved opening of the firebox. By contrast, a low rancher that his son and grandson built together in 1963 bears the characteristic craftsman-style fireplace with its smaller mantel, square firebox, raised hearth and a deeper, flat mantel shelf which can support photographs and other decorative items. Another two-story home, bearing a high-peaked roof and slate inlay on the façade, stands out from the others because it replicated a picture on an ashtray that John Miller fancied. The community’s jumble of building styles chronicles the growth of an American immigrant family.

Inside this Miller property, built in 1928, is a floor-to-ceiling fireplace and mantle built of stone.
A cubby was built into the mantel and was used to warm jugs of spirits

Miller and his family moved to Baltimore from Bavaria in the late 1800s. As a young man he bought a farm not far from the Naval Academy and began homesteading. He eventually built a few houses to rent, and when his son, George Ambrose Miller turned 16, the younger man built a small house of his own.

Houses continued to pop up with father and son working together to build rental properties and homes for various family members. With the birth of George Miller the second, the third generation of masons entered the family. At 82, he says he remembers his father and grandfather digging foundations by hand and hauling the material away with a horse and cart. “It was a lot of hard labor back then,” he says. “A lot of the stones were as big as a sofa, and you had to cut them down by hand with a maul so you could handle them. Then you had to cut them into shape with a chisel.”

He also says he can tell where his grandfather’s hands were involved by the precision of the stone work. “It’s the way they are laid in the wall,” he says. “My grandfather had a knack for picking them out with very little cutting.” A goblet-shaped stone planter stands in the yard of one of the houses as a testament to John Miller’s artistry. “To this day, I still don’t know how he ever built it,” Miller says. That kind of appreciation for stone work and passion for masonry seems endemic to the Miller bloodline and is even evidenced in the dog house built with odd sized remnants by John Ambrose’s youngest daughter.

Another fine example of Miller masonry. This fireplace features rich burgundy-colored ferruginous sandstone,
not commonly used in the construction of Anne Arundel County homes

Nearly a century later, when George Miller’s daughter, Linda Davis, wanted to add an addition to her home, the one built in 1928 with the unique arched-mantel fireplace, she chose to match the stone rather than use siding or another kind of material. Initially, a local builder was hired for the project, but when he passed away after digging the foundation, it was then-72-year-old George Miller who stepped in with some of his old “crew” to complete the project. “I can’t tell you how grateful I was to have him working with me," says Davis.

Her father says most of the stone in the community had come from what he called the Pasadena Sand Pits. Other stones were brought from around Bodkin Creek, Severna Park, and Millersville. They are a type of ferruginous sandstone not commonly used for homes in Anne Arundel County, but Miller says his family built with it because it was readily available and inexpensive. According to Maryland State Geologist, Heather Quinn, it seems clear the stones came from different geological formations. Those mined early in Pasadena may have come from the Potomac Group or the Magothy Formation, both of which probably formed sometime between 65 million to 145 million years ago. There are also many stones that bear the imprints of seashells which she says are likely to be from the Aquia formation, which formed when a shallow sea covered the area between 56 million and 64 million years ago.

Whatever their origin, matching the stones was not easy, but eventually Davis found a variety of stone in Millersville that seems indistinguishable from the original. And in that way—three generations after a master mason from Bavaria laid his first corner stone on a farm in Annapolis—his family’s stone home tradition lives on.

“A lot of the stones were as big as a sofa, and you had to cut them down by hand with a maul so you could handle them. Then you had to cut them into shape with a chisel.”—82-year-old George Miller, grandson of John Ambrose Miller