Hampton mansion has funds shortfall Balto. Co. historic site seeking $77,000 more, may charge admission

February 03, 1997|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,SUN STAFF

For more than two centuries, stately Hampton mansion in Towson has survived wars, changing economies and encroaching suburbia.

But the next few months could be the most critical for the historic home -- visited by Marquis de Lafayette and President Theodore Roosevelt -- that is operated as a historical site by the National Park Service.

The main roof is leaking. Precious artifacts are stored in rooms that lack heat and air conditioning. The number of visitors is static. The mansion has no permanent, on-site superintendent.

And the 63-acre park on Hampton Lane, outside the Baltimore Beltway, has been operating at a deficit for several years.

"We could lose it soon if something is not done," said Hampton volunteer Barbara King, who leads tours of the grand Georgian house twice a week.

To make up the budget shortfall, park officials are asking the federal government for $77,000 in addition to the $422,000 annual operating budget for Hampton.

They hope the request will withstand the first cut Thursday, when President Clinton is expected to send his proposed federal budget to Congress.

"There are a lot of compelling needs in this fiscal era," said Kathryn D. Cook, general superintendent who oversees Fort McHenry and the Hampton National Historic Site.

"My concern is people who don't know about Hampton and don't understand its value," Cook said.

If Hampton does not get increased funding, Cook said, "We will need to make tough decisions."

Operating hours -- the site is now open seven days a week -- and the staff of eight could be cut, she said, adding that employee cuts "would be a last-ditch effort."

And according to whispers, Hampton, one of the few free destinations in the area, could start charging admission.

"It's something the park service is exploring," Hampton curator Lynne Hastings acknowledged.

Meanwhile, local preservationists are keeping a close eye on Baltimore County's lone national park site. Fifteen other federal sites are in Maryland, from the Monocacy National Battlefield in Western Maryland to Assateague Island on the Eastern Shore.

"We're certainly concerned about it," said Tyler Gearhart, executive director of Preservation Maryland, a private group. "It's a wonderful site. It has a great story to tell."

A slice of life as it was

Hampton is much more than an impressive stucco house with a magnificent domed cupola, where the masters of the house and guests would play cards and drink wine while surveying the bucolic view. It represents a slice of 18th-and 19th-century life at an estate that once included an ironworks, farming and hundreds of slaves and indentured servants, as well as the founding Ridgely family.

Col. Charles Ridgely, a merchant, purchased the original 1,500 acres of wilderness in 1745. The main house, called Hampton Hall at the time, was built between 1783 and 1790 and was occupied by seven generations of the affluent Ridgelys.

The park, designated a historic site in 1948, opened to the public the next year with the first tours of the mansion. Even then, Ridgelys remained on the property, living in the farmhouse until 1979.

However, the number of visitors at Hampton has not changed much in the past five years, hovering around 30,000 annually -- compared with 600,000 people who tour Fort McHenry each year.

"I don't think people know about it," said Don Green of Towson, who was visiting the mansion for the first time on a recent Sunday with friend Ebbie Wheeler of Lutherville.

Said Judith S. Kremen, executive director of the Baltimore County Historical Trust: "Here we have a wonderful gem sitting in our back yard and hardly anyone shows up. This is the closest thing we have to Mount Vernon," the home of George Washington in Northern Virginia."

But the days of glorious banquets, children throwing snowballs in the great hall and hushed servants tiptoeing down Hampton's back staircase are long gone.

Third floor houses artifacts

While many rooms recapture their grandeur with period furnishings, some, such as a second-floor bedchamber, need maintenance. The third-floor, off-limits to visitors, houses artifacts including rows of wine bottles, dozens of pieces of porcelain and huge wood furniture.

The items have been protected as much as possible from the upper level's heat and humidity. But the staff is charting the temperature conditions with a device called a hygrothermograph.

"We need scientific data so we can show why we need air conditioning," Hastings said.

The leaking roof on the main house and a nearby farm building also are critical concerns, said Cook, who estimated the replacement cost at $1.5 million.

Deciding where the scarce funds go always is a challenge, Hastings said.

"There's a lot of wishing going on," she said. "Do you put a roof on the privy or new carpet in the bedroom?"

For years, Hampton has counted on hundreds of volunteers to perform a variety of duties, from giving tours to working in the gardens. To bolster resources, Hampton also relies on its fund-raising arm, Historic Hampton Inc.

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