A House Divided

April 22, 1994|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Staff Writer

For almost a decade, visitors to the Antietam battlefield near Sharpsburg could, if they wished, share their evenings with the ghosts of Confederate Maj. Gen. James Longstreet and his staff.

Thanks to an agreement between the National Parks Service and a Hagerstown couple who specialize in renovating old homes, visitors to the Western Maryland battlefield could spend their nights in the same two-story farmhouse General Longstreet used as his headquarters during the bloodiest single day of the American Civil War -- Sept. 17, 1862.

That arrangement, however, appears ready to end. Douglas Reed, who with his wife, Paula, has been operating the Piper House bed and breakfast inn since 1985, says he wants out. Unless someone shows up by July 5 who is willing to buy out the 56-year lease he signed with the park service in January 1985, Mr. Reed says the inn will shut down and the house will lie dormant.

DTC Apparently, the danger is very real that the inn could fall victim to a clash between an operator who says it isn't making enough money and a park service fearful his suggestions for making it more profitable would scar the hallowed landscape where Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and his Union counterpart, George B. McClellan, fought to a bloody draw.

The Piper House, used as a battle headquarters by one of Lee's most trusted officers, sits a few hundred feet off Route 65, about a quarter-mile south of the park's visitor center. As restored by the Reeds, the house includes four bedrooms -- each with its own bath -- and a wood exterior that covers the original log frame.

Visitors can sleep in a room once occupied by General Longstreet. And they can listen as Karol Sumpter, who has been handling the inn's day-to-day operations for three years, tells tales of how the general was uncomfortable eating anything until someone else had tasted it first, or how a group of men on horseback --not Civil War re-enacters, but the real thing -- rode up to the house a few years back seeking help for one of their sick comrades, or how modern-day Pipers have continued using the house for their annual reunion.

"It's a special place," says Jim Wilson, a retired Army officer living in Bethesda who has stayed in the home for a weekend every year. "It's small, which means you can rent the entire

house with your friends and have a nice quiet place."

John S. Bainbridge Jr., a Baltimore lawyer and former Sun reporter, stayed at the house recently with his son, Clayton, 13.

"I'm not much of a Civil War buff, but I enjoy the area," Mr. Bainbridge says. "My son is interested in the battlefield and the Civil War. To be able to go to sleep in this little farmhouse in the middle of everything," was, for father and son, the best of both worlds.

Mr. Reed says he has tried to come up with ways of making more money off the house -- either as a bed and breakfast or through some other use -- but the park service has vetoed his suggestions. "It got to be a constant stream of 'noes,' " he says.

Most damaging, he says, was its refusal to allow a planned museum of Civil War medicine to take over the building.

But Park Superintendent Susan Moore, who was unaware of Mr. Reed's plans until a reporter asked her about them last week, says a museum would bring unwanted traffic onto the battlefield. A bed and breakfast, she noted, brings maybe four or five cars, while a museum would bring many more.

"We're looking for a use that would have a limited impact on the landscape," Ms. Moore says. Park Service officials, who leased the house to Mr. Reed so he could renovate it without charge to them, would agree to have it used as a single-family home or professional office, with some limitations.

But Mr. Reed, who estimates he has sunk $115,000 in time and materials into a house that was "uninhabitable" when he signed the lease, says he hasn't found anyone willing to use it in that manner. Unless he and the Park Service can reach an agreement in the next few months, Mr. Reed says he'll close the building in July. "We would love for someone to come in and run it," he says. Otherwise, "it's just going to sit there."

That especially bothers Ms. Sumpter. She dreams of operating the house as a group home for the elderly and is trying to save enough money to do so -- maybe in another two or three years. In the meantime, she worries that park personnel will not care for the house and grounds the way she has.

"I'm really going to miss Piper, running around and digging up the garden," she says. "Are they going to take care of everything I took care of? You worry about things like that. It's just the idea that they're going to close the book on it that bothers me the most."

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