John Shields and his partner John Gilligan were on vacation in Cape Cod in 2008 when a Realtor friend, Bill Magruder, called to tell them they needed to return to Maryland to see a house.
“We weren’t even looking for a house,” recalls Gilligan. “But Bill said, ‘There’s a house coming on the market that has belonged to my friend’s mother for 45 years—and you have to see it immediately.’”
For Shields, this was an unwelcome interruption: He badly needed some downtime from his hectic life as both the owner of Gertrude’s restaurant at The Baltimore Museum of Art and the host of PBS’s Coastal Cooking, a show inspired by his two cookbooks (Chesapeake Bay Cooking with John Shields and Coastal Cooking with John Shields).
“We told Bill, ‘We’re not going to interrupt our vacation,’” recalls Shields. But Magruder was insistent. So, despite their reservations, the duo cut short their vacation to tour the post-World War II “Atomic Rancher” (i.e, a nickname for a Mid-Century Modern ranch home) in Towson. They’re glad they did.
“Turns out, he was right,” chuckles the 59-year-old Shields. “We went to see the house at two o’ clock, and by six we had made an offer and it was accepted. I liked that it was hidden, and when I walked in, it reminded me of Berkeley Hills [California], where I used to live.”
Adds Gilligan, a former social worker who now manages and co-owns Gertrude’s: “When I saw this, it struck a chord. It just felt right. I said, ‘This is the house.’”
When the couple moved in, they were pleased with the verdant views, soaring ceilings, and exposed wooden beams, but quickly realized that the house, while well-maintained, hadn’t been updated in decades. They ended up replacing the roof and several windows, as well as refinishing the floors.
To date, the overall vibe is mixed, with an assortment of styles—much of it springing from the imagination of Gilligan, who studied architecture in college. “When decorators come and do stuff, it’s gorgeous to look at,” he explains, “but it doesn’t look real. If we have an aesthetic, it would be that it’s not cookie-cutter.”
The airy space is filled with quirky artwork (a religious sculpture fashioned from found objects including a trophy base), bargain finds (a stunning dining room table discovered at the defunct C-Mart), and bric-a-brac from a lifetime of collecting. There are also gifts that family and friends have given them throughout the years—from an antique set of drawers from Shields’s grandmother (and restaurant namesake) Gertrude, to a pair of unique lamps with an elephant base from Gilligan’s grandmother Alma, to an oil streetscape painting by Maryland Institute College of Art graduate (and former Gertrude’s waiter) Tony Lakeheart. Of course, crab-themed items are a favorite gift for the Chesapeake Bay-inspired chef—including one wag who gave Shields a crab toilet paper holder with crab toilet paper.
And while Shields usually defers to Gilligan on decorating matters—“The only thing I really picked is the track-light fixture in the kitchen,” he says—his aesthetic and spirit permeate the house.
The retro kitchen, for example, untouched since it was built nearly 55 years ago, is Shields’s inspiration: Its original appliances include a Modern Maid electric stovetop and Kitchen Aid dishwasher, as well as flat-front wood cabinets.
“Everyone said to me, ‘When are you going to knock out the kitchen?’” says Shields. “But I love it—to me, it’s one of the centerpieces of the Atomic Rancher. The former owner kept it up beautifully and changed almost nothing, which is what makes it so great.”
You could say that the home is also a reflection of Shields’s colorful, anything-goes boyhood in Parkville, where his parents enjoyed entertaining and his grandmother taught him the secrets of the kitchen.
“I remember helping my grandmother with pie dough,” says Shields, who is currently working on two new books about the Chesapeake Bay. “I would make sauerbraten with her and she would let me help her with the potato dumplings. . . . My mother had pretty much turned over the cooking to me by the age of seven!”
“My mother was larger than life,” he continues. “There were so many people in the house. When I was two or three, I remember all [my parents’] friends would be down in the basement and she would be playing the piano. They were singing and shouting, and I would be sitting on the steps because I was supposed to be asleep, and I would smell the whiskey and the cigarettes, and there would be a party and music. I just loved it.”
The home was also a place where relatives, friends, and even the occasional stranger moved in and out in constant rotation.
“At any given time, there could be eight to 10 people living there,” notes Shields, who has four siblings. “My mother collected people. She had a soft heart—any relative that was going to be put in a nursing home came and lived with us, such as one aging relative. You never knew what was going to happen with [that relative] because she was going for shock treatments. She would be doing pretty well and then you’d get her home, and she be running around the house without her clothes on.”
Gilligan feels that Shields’s eclectic upbringing shaped him profoundly.
“He’s a caregiver,” explains Gilligan. “He is nonjudgmental. He is friends with rich, poor, crazy, and sane people because of that early childhood exposure. It makes your life richer.”
After he graduated from Parkville High School in 1969, Shields packed his bags and drove to Cape Cod where he filled in for the sick prep chef at the Provincetown Inn. His first day was a disaster.
“They gave me a big bag of garlic to peel, and I had never seen garlic before,” says Shields. “I had a little paring knife, and I cut all my fingers with the knife, and before I knew it, I had a Band-Aid on every finger.” The chef reassigned him to pie-shell duty.
“It took me all day, but at the end of the day, I had 36 pie shells,” says Shields. He was proud of his accomplishment until he looked down and realized that all the Band-Aids were gone—he had accidentally baked them into the shells!
It was an inauspicious debut for what would be become an auspicious career as a chef. But while Shields loves cooking at the restaurant and trawling coastal regions for recipes, he maintains that there is truly no place like home.
“For me, a home is a place you can hang out and feel good and be surrounded by things that make you smile,” he says. “A home is not a formal thing. I didn’t grow up with that. I knew some people who grew up in a much more formal home. They weren’t allowed to go into the dining room. They weren’t allowed to go into the living room. I never wanted that. I wanted a place that was very comfortable and welcoming, and I’ve really found that here.”