Montgomery mansion slated for rescue

Joseph White House in Boyds dates from 1822

February 14, 1999|By Scott Albright | Scott Albright,CAPITAL NEWS SERVICE

BOYDS - The historic Joseph White House, a jewel of formal Georgian architecture in rural Montgomery County, was once the majestic centerpiece of a prosperous 19th-century tobacco and livestock farm.

But today, the red brick, sandstone and wood building has succumbed to erosion, rot and the appetites of termites to an extent that it is barely standing.

Holes in the brick wall where a front porch was once attached look like pockmarks on the face of an old Southern gentleman. The house was condemned and abandoned in 1988. But preservationists and county officials, armed with at least $625,000 of state and private money, are optimistic that the house and surrounding 100-acre farm can regain its former splendor.

More than fixer-upper

Perry Kephart, a lifelong county resident and member of the preservation group, Historic Medley, is one of the leaders in a project to rescue the White House. She realizes that the building - its electrical system shot, ceilings ripped open and chimneys crumbling - is more than just a fixer-upper.

Besides rebuilding the house from its foundation constructed in 1822 with the same red Seneca sandstone used for the original Smithsonian Institution building project leaders plan to turn the surrounding land into a public horse farm.

``Part of preservation is to continue the usage of the land if you possibly can,'' Kephart says, taking in the misty landscape on an early spring morning, a glint of the future in her eye.

Elegantly overgrown with its hedgerows and hayfields, the 100 acres around the house will eventually support about 25 horses stabled in an on-site facility.

The refurbished house will ``not just be a museum,'' said Ellie Trueman, co-chairwoman of the committee that organized the effort to save the White House.

Trueman envisions thousands of annual visitors - including ``at-risk'' children invited as a part of a scholarship program who will take advantage of educational horse care and riding sessions provided at the new park.

Kephart and Trueman have worked with the Montgomery County Parks Foundation and Austin Kiplinger, publisher of the Kiplinger Washington Letters.

Kiplinger is a neighbor whose house is about as old as the White House. His home, which underwent radical refurbishment last year, was built in the early 1800s by a descendant of Martha Washington's.

'A lot of history'

``If you trace this White family, you trace a lot of the history of upper Montgomery County,'' said Kiplinger, a 40-year resident of the area.

Joseph White's family was one of the first in Montgomery County, settling in the area during the early 1700s. White built his house in 1822 and started a farm that was innovative in its use of lime for fertilizer.

During White's time, the county was divided into several districts, including the Medley District, named after the owner of tavern at the top of a nearby hill. The district's larger land owners, including White, met at the tavern to discuss and vote on agricultural bylaws.

The White House was later inhabited by Elijah Veir White, a Confederate hero of the Civil War who was born in the house and for whom nearby White's Ferry is named.

The farm was still owned by White family descendants in 1952, when it was left to three of the children of Eliza Virginia White Moore. Soon thereafter, the house was occupied by tenants, according to county historical documents.

By 1988, the property had fallen into such bad shape that it was condemned. The house and farm were donated in 1997 to the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission by its owner at the time, Rockville businessman William M. Rickman Sr.

Today, a new golf course is ready to open on the southern edge of the property. The northern and eastern edges are marked by a line of 150-foot electrical transmission towers and traffic on nearby Route 28 sounds impatient.

But the house, its fields, and now its horses, seem curiously oblivious to the encroaching modernity. And Trueman and Kephart, whose ancestors were neighbors of the Whites, can see beyond the decay to what might be.

The project has been granted about $150,000 by the General Assembly, which will be combined with $475,000 of privately raised funds. But both Trueman and Kephart insist that the park will eventually be able to support itself.

Aside from the riding lessons that will be offered, Trueman said that the park could also serve as a natural setting for weddings and professional horse shows. Some of the fenced-in fields could be used to grow commercially valuable hay, she said.

Kephart emphasized the appeal of ``heritage tourism'' emanating from the White site, likening it to Annapolis, where outdoor activities blend into the backdrop of a colorful past.

``When people go to historical properties, they tend to stay longer and spend more money,'' Kephart said. ``If these buildings can pay their own way, it makes good commercial sense.''

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