Essex landmark is one of area's best-kept secrets

September 11, 1990|By Robert A. Erlandson

Catherine Groth remembers Ballestone Manor in better days, when she was a child and her family rented a summer house near the late-Georgian plantation home that overlooks the mouth of Back River and Chesapeake Bay.

"It was a farm then, and a family named Vesper lived here," she recalled. "They had four girls, and I played with them when we came down in the summer from East Baltimore. It was really nice and so beautiful right by the water."

Mrs. Groth was so saddened by the manor's decline into a dilapidated shell that she has dedicated herself to its restoration as vice president of the Ballestone Preservation Society and one of the home's most committed docents.

Ballestone is one of Baltimore County's best-kept historical secrets, overshadowed by the elegance of Hampton Mansion, Mount Clare and the Carroll Mansion downtown and hampered by its out-of-the-way location.

But Mrs. Groth and the society volunteers are determined to win the Essex landmark its share of the area's historical spotlight. It counted 4,500 visitors last year and would like to double that number.

Each year, the society attracts hundreds of people to the house for its Living History weekend -- this year's will be Sept. 29 and 30 -- when troops in blue and gray re-enact Civil War battles and camp life, and for its candlelight Holly Tours on December weekend evenings when the house is done up in period Christmas decorations.

Standing on an elevation above Claybank Point at the edge of Rocky Point Golf Course, the original house was built about 1780 by farmer Dixon Stansbury on land granted in 1659 to William Ball, George Washington's maternal great-grandfather.

Several additions enlarged it in the 19th century. Among the later additions is the white-pillared porch that sweeps the second floor of the house, which contains three bedrooms, a newly restored Victorian parlor, a large entrance hall, a dining room, a cellar and huge attic.

The porch, however, is scheduled for replacement, Mrs. Groth said. It was rebuilt in the reconstruction of 1976-1977 and is not only historically inaccurate but is now rotting and too dangerous to use.

James Trescott, an historic-restoration consultant from Uniontown who became interested in the Ballestone project in 1983, said that when the porch was rebuilt in the reconstruction to save the house, "the architect tried to 'colonialize' it" into a pre-Revolutionary style.

The county has agreed that it will be restored to its original appearance from the Victorian period, including the decoratively carved brackets and cornices, he said.

The house is built of mellowed red, Flemish bond brickwork. The front is painted white with black shutters. There are two dark-red front doors, one leading into the parlor and the other to the entrance hall. What is now the back of the house originally was the front, facing the water, but when the porch was added, this was reversed.

A chain-link fence topped by three strands of barbed wire

surrounds the property, giving it a detention-center appearance. The few climbing red and yellow rose bushes and ivy spotted around the perimeter do little to disguise the ugliness of the fence.

Ballestone is owned by Baltimore County and administered by the Department of Recreation and Parks. The fence was erected in the early 1970s when the county agreed not to demolish the house and gave preservationists a chance to restore it.

Because the site is deserted at night, the fence is probably necessary to inhibit vandals, Mr. Trescott said, "but we would like to extend it to enlarge the area around the house so it doesn't look so enclosed and so we can return to the white picket fence that appears in old photographs."

Director Robert R. Staab of the parks department, a Ballestone supporter, said, "It's all a matter of priorities" because of money constraints. He said, however, that parks employees could extend the fence during the cold-weather season.

The main priority is the porch. Ballestone's budget this year is $151,000 in state and county funds, Mr. Staab said, "but we probably have $500,000 worth of work that needs to be done."

Baltimore County bought the farm in 1969 to create Rocky Point Park and golf course. The house, occupied until then, remained empty for several years and deteriorated rapidly. By the mid-1970s, it was but a battered hulk.

The Heritage Society of Essex-Middle River "discovered" Ballestone in 1974 and adopted its restoration as a Bicentennial project. The house made the National Register of Historic Places in 1975 and was opened for public viewing in 1977, the same year the Ballestone Preservation Society was formed to continue the restoration.

A separate red-brick kitchen building was built in 1981 for demonstrations of open-hearth cooking and for office space for the society.

Mr. Trescott said the goal was to restore "one room a year." The most recent is the Victorian parlor, for which a special $6,000 carpet in shades of green and burgundy was woven in strips to be sewn together.

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