WHEN I WAS a child one of my favorite places to eat lunch was the tea room at the old Hutzler's department store in Towson. A little girl could feel genteel and grown-up there amid the pearl-draped ladies with their shopping bags, a neat little sandwich on her plate instead of the usual burger-and-fries kiddie fare.
And there were those murals -- the walls covered with painted scenes from Maryland history, including a beautiful place called Hampton Mansion.
Funny, but it never occurred to me that Hampton Mansion might be a real house, and that I might actually go there. Hampton was never mentioned as a place where we might take out-of-town visitors. No teacher ever suggested a field trip there. Later, even after I'd attended a wedding reception on the Hampton lawn and knew that the place did, in fact, exist, I figured it was just a lovely old house, like a lot of other lovely old houses.
So, it turns out, did -- do -- many other people who grew up around here. Hampton National Historic Site may be the most under-utilized, under-publicized historic locale in Maryland. It's loaded with fabulous furniture and paintings, and unlike many better-known historic houses, it and all its accessory buildings and gardens are original.
Yet it entertained a paltry 31,000 visitors last year (compared to 600,000 people who visited Fort McHenry, also run by the park service). County officials never use Hampton for important events. It's a forgotten asset.
The fault lies largely with the National Park Service, which owns and manages Hampton. Historically it has expended more energy and money on natural than cultural resources, a reflection of Americans' priorities. We are not particularly protective of our artistic and social heritage.
Kathryn Cook, general superintendent of Hampton and Fort McHenry, observes that Americans are drawn to places where a big event, especially a military event, occurred -- Fort McHenry, for instance. And we like superlatives -- the Grand Canyon, say, because it's the deepest canyon. Sites like Hampton, significant because of what they tell us about the way people lived over an extended period, intrigue us less.
So, they have not been a budgetary priority. And the shoestring is getting shorter as the park service struggles with a serious budget crunch. These money problems are forcing cutbacks in hours, services and upkeep at even the big parks. Gettysburg National Military Park, with 23 percent more visitors over the past 10 years as interest in the Civil War has boomed, has suffered a corresponding decrease in its visitors-services staff. It must turn away 25 percent of requests for school tours.
At Hampton, the $420,000 budget is expected to fall $75,000 short of paying for the existing eight-member staff and basic operating expense.
A self-contained community
There is no money for promotional programs that would advertise Hampton, now a 60-acre park, as the remains of a 24,000-acre, self-contained community where people of all social levels were involved in farming, shipping, running an iron foundry and various trades over six generations.
There is no money to hire more rangers to give more tours, should articles like this one stimulate interest. There is no money to restore the 27 accessory structures, including slaves' quarters. ''Six are maybe in stable condition but they need work,'' says curator Lynne Dakin Hastings. ''Most of the others need some kind of significant work to keep them stable.''
Replacement of the mansion's leaking slate roof, estimated at $500,000, is Ms. Hastings' top priority. She doesn't know where the money will come from.
There are no funds to provide proper museum storage of clothing, furnishings, tools, glassware, papers and photos. Right now, they're kept on the mansion's unheated, un-air-conditioned third floor, subject to damage from extreme temperature and humidity.
There is no staff to help Ms. Hastings curate these objects. Only 5,000 items of the 45,000-item collection are on display, and only a quarter of the furniture and decorative arts. These artifacts, dating from the 18th century through the 1930s and reflecting the life of people at all points in the social spectrum, could be a wonderful resource for teaching about who we were and who we are.
Those of us who care about this sort of thing can help in two ways. We can tell our U.S. senators and representatives that the national parks are important to us, so when they go after the deficit they don't think this is an easy target.
And those who can afford to can donate to the parks' ''friends'' groups, charged with raising private funds; Hampton's is called Historic Hampton Inc.
Yes, I know, everybody's asking for our money, and if you've got only a dollar to give there's a powerful argument for giving it to a needy child rather than a leaking mansion roof. Still, places like Hampton shouldn't have to go begging. They lift us up, they enrich. It matters that they survive.
Elise Armacost writes editorials for The Sun.
Pub Date: 1/19/97