Hampton Mansion's tearoom to become another piece of history after Dec. 31 Park service to close cafe due to possible fire hazard

September 15, 1998|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,SUN STAFF

Dressed in pristine cooking whites, Yvonne Barber has been whipping up tasty chicken salad, crab cakes and little beaten biscuits at historic Hampton Mansion in Towson for 43 years.

She has served the traditional Maryland fare to generations of visitors who have enjoyed leisurely lunches and special occasions in the quaint tearoom that recalls a genteel era of sherry sipping and white-jacketed waiters.

But the long-standing Baltimore-area tradition is about to end.

A week ago, the National Park Service, which runs the 1790 Georgian mansion where the tearoom is tucked into the original kitchen, decided to eliminate the concession as of Dec. 31. Officials say a restaurant is not needed and poses a fire hazard.

"I think it is tragic. I love the tearoom," said Nell Merryman, 77, a former chairwoman of the Hampton women's committee. "If the park service is behind this, shame on them. It will destroy Hampton."

The park service says it is closing the tearoom -- which does not cost the federal government money -- to protect Hampton, which is decorated with many original furnishings.

"One of the things that has us concerned is an operating kitchen in a main park resource. If there is a fire, the building would go quickly," said on-site park superintendent Laurie Coughlan. "We were also concerned how necessary the concession is."

Hampton National Historic Site, on Hampton Lane near the Beltway and Dulaney Valley Road, is within driving distance of several restaurants, she said.

But several members of the women's committee -- a group that raises money for various projects at the park -- say the tearoom is a plus for the park where annual attendance of 30,000 has been static.

"Anything like that is a drawing card for the house," said longtime committee member Charlotte Brice of North Baltimore, who adds that, to her knowledge, there has never been a fire at the mansion. "People will come out to the tearoom for its charm and ambience."

Tables in the tearoom are covered with cornflower-blue cloths and set with crisp white napkins and blue-and-white china called Syracuse. The original cooking hearth, warming stove and bread oven in the main dining room are unused but serve as a reminder of pre-abolition days when slaves prepared the meals.

Officials at Preservation Maryland, which served as custodian of the site for 30 years until the park service took it over in 1979, are disappointed by the shutdown.

"It's a nice amenity that helps attract visitors to the park," said executive director Tyler Gearhart. "I'm sympathetic to the reasons. But I'm surprised they didn't leave the decision to the general management plan process."

The decision by the park service comes shortly before a meeting to develop a general plan for Baltimore County's only national park, which celebrated its 50th anniversary this summer. The session will be held at 7 p.m. today at Towson United Methodist Church, 501 Hampton Lane.

With the cancellation of the tearoom lease, Barber -- a quiet woman who has spent countless hours toiling in the spotless stainless-steel and gleaming-white kitchen -- will be left without a livelihood.

"It was my first and only job," said Barber, who became the cafe's proprietor. "I'll leave it in the Lord's hands. He'll look out for us."

Until the tearoom closes, lunch will continue to be served from 11: 30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday by the same familiar faces.

Michael Garnes, the tearoom's longtime head waiter, believes the tearoom, which opened almost 50 years ago, is being forced to shut down. He said the park superintendent, who came to Hampton 1 1/2 years ago, has discouraged people from scheduling parties or using the tearoom.

"Business has dropped 85 [percent] to 90 percent. We used to fill up inside every day," said Garnes, a slender, courtly man who affectionately calls Barber "Mom."

Garnes, who started working at the tearoom 20 years ago, was following the career path of his father, Leroy "Duke" Garnes. The elder Garnes leased the business with Barber from 1975 until his death from cancer in 1991.

In addition to a midday repast, Garnes and Barber have been responsible for soothing the wedding jitters of countless brides who wanted their receptions held at stately Hampton.

Corinne Onnen, 41, of Lutherville said she will never forget the wonderful party she had on the lawn after marrying her husband, Ferdinand, on Oct. 4, 1980.

"It was just great. Those people were so lovely," Onnen said of Barber and Garnes. "Yvonne worked so closely with me."

For Garnes, 40, the final days of the tearoom will be sad.

"It's always been a nice place to work," he said. "It's a beautiful environment. It was perfect."

Pub Date: 9/15/98

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