George Washington slept there. And, his diary reveals, he ate there, too.
But once upon a time, none of this seemed to matter. Fifty years ago the stately home now known as the Hynson-Ringgold House, one of the oldest and loveliest of Chestertown's 18th century buildings, was overgrown, deteriorating rapidly and, quite frankly, spooky.
"When I was a little girl, nobody lived here. We thought it was haunted!" says Mackey Dutton, a lifelong Chestertown resident and board member of the Kent County Historical Society. "We used to sneak in the window and play here. Supposedly, if you pressed a place on one of the steps, there was a secret passage that went to the Customs House. We never found it, though."
The house's sorry state could not be allowed to continue -- especially not in history-revering Chestertown! "The Abbey" (so called by a 19th century owner, because its stained-glass
windows reminded him of a church) was, after all, nothing if not rich in history. It was built in the 1740s by Dr. William Murray, a surgeon and the son of a Scottish marquis who was attainted for treason because of his Jacobite sympathies. It had played host not only to the first president, but to Benjamin Franklin, Sam Houston, Rembrandt Peale and other notables. Its owners included a U.S. senator, James Alfred Pearce, an able diplomat who helped settle disputes between the North and South in the years before the Civil War.
Recognizing both the history and the beauty of the house, local residents began a drive to raise funds to buy and renovate the house as the official residence of the president of nearby Washington College.
Purchased in 1944 and renamed the Hynson-Ringgold House, the handsome Georgian brick manor, which overlooks the Chester River, now serves several functions. It is a private home, a showplace for college-based entertaining, a local tourist attraction, and a centerpiece of the annual Candlelight Walking Tour. The 22nd tour, sponsored by the Historical Society of Kent County, will be held from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 21 (see box).
In its two and a half centuries, the house -- which takes its name from Nathaniel Hynson Jr., owner of the property when the town was laid out in 1735, and Thomas Ringgold, the wealthy merchant who greatly enlarged the house in the 1770s -- has had a variety of incarnations, from grand manor to rooming house to "haunted house," and its appearance has undergone plenty of evolution.
And it's still evolving. Now under the stewardship of Chuck and Katherine Trout, who took over as "first family" of Washington College last year, the old place has a new look that takes history into account, while not turning its back on the modern sensibilities of its new residents.
"A majority of the furnishings in the house, especially on the first floor, belong to the college, and yet each administration seems to interpret the house a little bit differently," says Nancy Nunn, the historical society's curator. "The Caters, who left a year ago, were very, very formal, and so was the house. While the Trouts have maintained the formality, they've also added a hint of fun to it, and made it more comfortable. I think that comes across as you walk into the rooms."
The room that has probably changed the least is the east parlor, with its elegant carved woodwork and perfect proportions; a false door on one wall contributes to the room's symmetry. Like the door, however, not everything in the room is as it seems. The Charles Willson Peale portraits of Thomas Ringgold and his wife, Anna Maria, are reproductions, as is the paneling. The originals were removed from the house in the 1930s and installed in the Baltimore Museum of Art as the "Chestertown Room."
Another room that retains its period look is the dining room, in which George Washington (who gave his name, and 50 guineas, to the college) supped in 1773. It is furnished with antiques, all of them gifts to the college.
In the other downstairs rooms, though, the personal possessions and personal tastes of the new owners are on display. The antique pieces have been rearranged and pared down, and mixed with contemporary furnishings, modern art, lively colors, and textiles collected -- and even hand-woven -- by the new first lady.
Maintaining the balance between traditional and individuality has been something of a challenge, admits Katherine Trout.
"People in Chestertown have a real interest in the house; it really belongs to the community," she says. "Because the house has such a history for people, I want to be sensitive to their feelings. On the other hand, I can't just let it be 18th century and not be me. It has to reflect my own personality."
She has been careful, she says, not to do anything irreversible to the house or its treasures. Changes have been made with respect for the building's antiquity, and historic preservation experts are consulted frequently. But within limits, Mrs. Trout has had plenty of opportunities to put her own signature on the design.