Resident curator restores life to old Sandy Point house

October 18, 1992|By John A. Morris | John A. Morris,Staff Writer

Tom Johnson fully expects to have a half-million people traipsing through his back yard next summer, but if that's the price he has to pay to live in a historic, four-bedroom beachfront estate, so be it.

After all, it's rent-free.

Mr. Johnson and his wife, Gale, are spending $156,000 to renovate a 177-year-old Georgian country house at Sandy Point State Park. As part of the state's Resident-Curatorship program, they will live in the house rent-free for the rest of their lives.

"What's the difference between this and living at the ocean," asked Mr. Johnson, who owns a bridal and tuxedo shop in Columbia. "You have a mess of traffic at the ocean, too, and I think we'll enjoy this more."

The white brick mansion was built by the Gibson family in the early 1800s as part of a thoroughbred horse farm. The state acquired it along with the Sandy Point property in the 1950s. Although the state is spending $3.5 million upgrading the park, constructing wider entrance roads, new concession stands and additional bathrooms, state officials said they do not have the money to renovate the farmhouse.

"The curatorship is a gift to the state," said Torrey C. Brown, secretary of the Department of Natural Resources. "There couldn't possibly be a better opportunity to restore it in a tight budget time. And they get a great place to live."

The DNR owns more than 400 historic buildings, some of which it operates as museums or rents to tenants. Others, which the department doesn't have the money to repair and maintain, are placed in the resident-curator program.

Twenty historic homes -- varying from a grand, plantation-style mansion to a modest, quarry foreman's duplex -- have been repaired since the program began in 1982.

Little has been done over the years to restore the Sandy Point house. The state spent $200,000 renovating the exterior in 1986, believing the park might use it as a visitors center. Then the public money dried up and the house quickly deteriorated.

Mr. Johnson, who retired from the Air Force in 1986, learned how to restore old homes as a volunteer at Williamsburg, Va. By the time he later helped friends renovate the old Elkridge Furnace houses within Patapsco Valley State Park in Howard County, he was hooked.

When Ross Kimmel, director of DNR's resident-curator program, asked if Mr. Johnson wanted to tackle the three-story Sandy Point farmhouse, Mr. Johnson didn't require much persuading. The two of them drove out to Sandy Point.

"I agreed to do it before I even got out of the car," Mr. Johnson said. "I think it was the park setting that did it."

The Johnsons, who began work last spring, hope to transform what state officials call an "embarrassment" into their pride and joy. Although work won't be complete, they hope to move in in January.

In addition to money, Mr. Johnson has invested nearly 3,000 hours of his time, gutting the interior, even replacing structural beams. He estimates he'll need another 9,000 hours to finish the job.

Mr. Johnson is striving to restore the house to the way it was in 1815. "The only modern convenience will be a Jacuzzi tub," he said. "After I finish all this work, I'll need it."

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