The first time that National Aquarium, Baltimore chief executive officer John Racanelli visited Baltimore, he was 20 and on board The Explorer, one of a fleet of tall ships sailing to the Inner Harbor as part of the nation’s 1976 bicentennial celebration. “The ship had been built in 1904 and was the official tall ship of Washington and Oregon,” recalls Racanelli. “It had sailed around Cape Horn and charted the waters of Alaska and the Puget Sound for decades before being restored. It was not a beautiful ship—we called ourselves ‘The Bicentennial Pirate Ship.’”
At the time, the lifelong sailor, who was the navigator from Costa Rica to Baltimore, coincidentally pulled into port on Pier 3 where the aquarium is now situated. “Back then, I needed some life skills in addition to my schooling,” explains Racanelli, who took a leave of absence from the University of California, “so I took excursions away from school for a while, the first of which was this sailing trip on a small boat where I worked as a crewmember and sailed down the coast of Costa Rica.”
While in Costa Rica, the young seaman met the captain of The Explorer. “I went down to the ship, and a lot of people were getting off because they’d been at sea for 37 days,” says Racanelli. Among those who disembarked was the ship’s navigator. “The captain asked me, ‘Can you celestial navigate?’ Back then, I knew enough to say ‘yes,’ and he said, ‘Okay, then you can be our navigator.’ I studied everything I could. It turned out that there was a beautiful bronze sextant with a chronograph and the almanacs and all the things I needed to get from there to here.”
Racanelli recalls that Charm City was a lot less charming when he first arrived in 1976. “At the time, Pier 3 was just a flat pier,” he says. “The Inner Harbor was still very much a working harbor, and the aquarium hadn’t even been built. When people hear I spent a lot of time on the waterfront, they say, ‘Wow, back then it was pretty rough—old bars and sailors.’ And I say, ‘Well, I was one of those sailors in one of those bars. What’s the issue?’”
The salt spray long washed away, Racanelli now sits on the polished-cotton living-room sofa in the Canton townhome where he moved with his wife, Susan, in 2011. Despite being longtime Californians (who most recently lived in the hills of suburban San Francisco’s picturesque Marin County), Racanelli and Susan love living in Canton.
Through the years, Racanelli had visited Baltimore on several occasions, most memorably when he was on a reconnaissance mission as vice president of marketing and development with the Monterey Bay Aquarium and ended up on a V.I.P. tour of the National Aquarium (along with Liberace and his longtime boyfriend, Scott Thorson). But it wasn’t until he came back to interview for the aquarium job that he found himself truly smitten with Baltimore.
“When I came here for my second round of interviews, we spent the weekend,” says Racanelli. “We went for brunch to Mr. Rain’s Fun House and got the best Bloody Marys we’ve ever had, and we enjoyed AVAM [American Visionary Art Museum]. We went to Annapolis for dinner, found our way through Fells Point, and walked around the Inner Harbor. A lot of the things that we loved about San Francisco—the food scene, the arts, and culture—we also liked about Baltimore.”
Of course, Racanelli notes that one of the biggest differences between the two cities is the affordable housing market in Baltimore.
“We never could have had this much space in San Francisco,” says Racanelli. His current home includes three bedrooms and four and a half baths in 3,700 square feet that serves as a repository for a lifetime of collected furniture, art, and artifacts from 27 years of marriage and world travel. And as much as Racanelli appreciates all the room to spread out, he happily defers to Susan in the décor department. “I am a willing student of the vision of Susan Racanelli when it comes to home decoration,” he says with a laugh. Chimes in Susan, who works for Seacology, an international environmental organization that preserves island habitats all over the world, “I have a French-Northern Italian aesthetic, but we travel so much, I didn’t want only one thumbprint. Much of our home is a collection of all the places we’ve been.”
On the first level alone, the media room boasts a hand-carved chess set and hand-beaded candelabra from Nairobi, Kenya, as well as a pounded tapa cloth from Samoa, coasters from Uganda, a tin lizard sculpture from Madagascar, a pair of ostrich eggs from Tanzania, and a handmade Berber rug from a desert trek through Morocco. The second level, where the kitchen, living room, and dining area are located, features brightly colored pottery from Italy and Mexico, an alabaster Buddha head from Vietnam, and a pair of nesting tables from Florence, Italy. The third-floor décor includes a few stateside touches with an alligator head purchased from Miccosukee Indians in Florida (and now on display in the room of their son, Pierson, who is a senior at Cornell University) and a blanket chest from Susan’s childhood spent in Michigan. The top floor is a paean to the family—with photos of grandparents, parents, stepsiblings, and a dramatic snapshot of Yaka the Killer Whale retrieving a mackerel from Racanelli’s mouth on his last day of work at northern California’s Marine World in the early 1980s. Not surprisingly, also on display is a school of various crystal fish. “People are always giving me fishy things,” says Racanelli with a laugh.
“They’re pretty, so I don’t get upset, but I don’t know where to put them all.”
Though Susan was in charge of interior design, Racanelli did have one rule: “There’s a place for everything, and everything in its place,” he states. “And Susan has no problem with going along with that. It’s a sailor saying, ‘When you need something on a boat, you need to know where it is supposed to be.’ The same rule applies in a home, especially in a home with all these stairs and where we’re often yelling to each other from the top floor.” (Jokes Susan, “I usually just yell, ‘Ahoy, mate.’”)
Another edict was to have a more traditional-style home. “I grew up in an Eichler house,” he says of the iconic, mid-century modern tract-style housing built by real-estate developer Joseph Eichler. “Now, these are the hipster houses—all glass, wood, and steel with a flat roof. I didn’t like that house—it had a radiant-heated floor, but the pipes were galvanized so you had three or four patches in the whole house where the heat came up. As a kid, I’d lay on the floor like a cat, holding onto those patches of warmth.”