There's No Place Like These 3 Historic Howard Homes

September 15, 1991|By Patrick L. Hickerson | Patrick L. Hickerson,Staff writer

Waverly, Belmont and Oakland, three of Howard County's more notable homes, are not placid historical sites devoted to the past. All threeare dedicated to serving contemporary needs, but retain a flavor of 18th- and 19th-century America.

Despite having a collective age ofover 660 years, these three historical homes have rather diverse modern roles which include an executive conference center, a site for social occasions and office space for community leaders.

Waverly, built in 1760, is most noted for being the home of George Howard, 25th elected governor of Maryland and son of John Eager Howard, Revolutionary War hero and Howard County's namesake. George's distinction among Maryland governors is that he was the only one to be born in the governor's mansion -- a result of his father being governor at the time.

Waverly was originally -- and bluntly -- called "The Mistake," by its first owner, Nathan Dorsey. When he fell on hard times, Nathan allowed his brothers, Edward and Vachel, to take over "The Mistake." They sold it to John Eager Howard in 1786.

John gavethe house and the 1,313 acres of land as a wedding present to Georgeand his new wife, Prudence Ridgely, daughter of Charles Ridgely of Hampton in Baltimore County, 17th elected governor of Maryland. The newlyweds immediately renamed their gift the more melodious "Waverly," after the title of a Sir Walter Scott novel.

Howard County has owned the house and 3.5 acres of land since 1989, when it was purchased from Preservation Maryland, which completed the restoration of the Waverly house and gardens in 1981.

Inside, the house maintains an 18th-century style, although the "Bride's Chamber," a room a half-storyremoved from the rest of the house, is decorated in a Victorian style.

The garden also is scrupulously designed to look as it would have during George Howard's time. Spring bulbs, azaleas, old English boxwoods and rhododendrons all grow in the gardens, with dogwoods and maples bordering the clearing in the back of the house.

Today, Waverly is available as a meeting place for social events such as weddings, receptions and luncheons. One contemporary fixture, air conditioning, is scheduled to be installed in December.

Although it rests less than a mile from Interstate 95, Belmont is the most isolated of this trio of homes. Surrounded on all sides by the Patapsco Valley State Park, one can hardly hear the din of traffic from the eight-lane highway.

Belmont is also the oldest of the three homes. Caleb and Pricilla Dorsey built the original house in 1738 on a parcel of 1,662 acres of land given to Caleb by his father as a wedding present. Calebwould later make his fortune through several iron forges in Elk Ridge that operated on creeks feeding the Patapsco River -- then navigable all the way to Elkridge.

Ownership of Belmont also has included radical Federalist Alexander Hanson, industrialist Howard Bruce, the Smithsonian Institution and now the American Chemical Society, which uses the grounds as an open conference center. Belmont is booked for conferences by various companies and organizations about 220 days a year.

The 30-room Georgian house is maintained as a functional house. Consequently, each room is very eclectic in its decor. Chippendale, Sheraton and Empire are the prevalent styles.

The elaborate garden in the rear of the house is styled after formal English gardens, patterned with blends of annuals and perennials either bordering or inthe center of each compartment.

In the farthest compartment from the house is a detailed Victorian garden appointed with 15 different kinds of flowers, including marigolds, zinnias and cleomes.

Becauses of its use as an executive conference center, Belmont is closed tothe public. An annual tour, however, is organized through local historical societies or garden clubs.

In a town so young that it annually celebrates its own birthday, Oakland is one of the few artifacts of 19th-century architecture left in Columbia.

Oakland, which rests on the highest geographic point in Columbia, was built in 1811 as the summer home to Charles Sterrett Ridgely of Baltimore, registered as a gentleman, who lobbied in Annapolis as speaker to make Howard County independent from Anne Arundel County.

Fourteen years later, this 16-room late-Federalist was sold to Robert Oliver, founder of the B & O Railroad. Another notable occupant was George Gaither -- Confederate Colonel George Gaither -- who bought the home in 1838, but was hastily evicted by Union soldiers during the Civil War.

In the 20th century, Oakland has been used as a health spa, a nursing home, a field office for developer James Rouse, a college and an office for the Red Cross.

Today Oakland is owned by Columbia Association. Columbia Foundation and the Village of Town Center both have offices in the house, but its most noted occupant may be the Maryland Museum of African-American Art. Like Waverly and Belmont, Oakland plays host to the occasional wedding. It averages 60,000 visitors a year.

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