Turf battle in Carroll Park

Mansion: A lock-changing episode at Mount Clare is the latest skirmish in an escalating war over how a piece of the city's colonial past is presented to the public.

June 09, 2000|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

The Colonial Dames of America finally had enough of the historian who is directing an archaeological dig on the grounds of their precious Mount Clare Mansion in Southwest Baltimore.

The descendants of the nation's oldest families - hardly revolutionaries, despite their roots and pedigree - conspired, then barred her from the Carroll Park mansion, which they have meticulously maintained for more than eight decades, mostly at their own expense.

They secretly changed the locks.

In turn, the historian, Pamela F. Charshee, called the city to have the locks changed back and to give her the key to a basement field office and bathroom. The Department of Recreation and Parks complied.

"Everybody in City Hall just scratches their heads and says, `Can't we all just play together?'" said Michael Baker, chief of parks for the city. "It's tit-for-tat type of stuff going on there. It's like who gets the dodge ball at recess."

The lock-swap episode, which has played out over the past two weekends, is the latest skirmish in an escalating war over who controls the property - and, ultimately, how this piece of Baltimore's colonial history is presented to the public.

The Dames say the problem is the 30-by-35-foot hole outside the mansion door - an archaeological dig undertaken by Charshee, 51, executive director of the Carroll Park Foundation and former curator of Mount Clare.

But the matter is larger than the dig.

"The dig is just the tip of the iceberg," Charshee said.

Indeed.

Charshee's vision is "rediscovering a colonial world in Carroll Park," according to her letterhead. What she ultimately wants to do is turn the park into a Williamsburg, Va.-type attraction.

"This is tremendously exciting for Baltimore," said Charshee, who has taken an intense interest in Mount Clare. "It would make Baltimore a real place, not a cookie-cutter city on the East Coast."

The city's Planning Department will unveil its vision for the site in its Carroll Park master plan next month. City planners, too, want to attract more visitors to the often overlooked mansion, which draws about 6,000 each year.

The mansion, Baltimore's oldest standing home, is set high atop a hill overlooking Pigtown, one of the city's poorer neighborhoods.

Two city contracts

The city, which owns both the park and mansion, will have to broker any peace that's to be had.

It has a contract with the Dames, who control the inside of the mansion, and a contract with the foundation for control of the surrounding property.

The foundation, which has been digging on the site for 2 1/2 years, has a separate contract with the Dames to use the basement as a field office. Even though that contract expired six months ago, Charshee remains in the space - to the dismay of the Dames.

The city is allowing Charshee to stay in the basement until the groups, the city and their lawyers can sit down and come to an agreement, Baker said. A meeting will be scheduled within the next two weeks.

The National Society of the Colonial Dames of America - whose members all had a male relative who was a prominent civic or military figure before the Revolutionary War - is opposed to turning the Mount Clare site into a broader attraction.

"The Williamsburg idea is dreadful," said MadelineRohlfs, 82, who holds several positions for the Maryland chapter of the Dames, including parliamentarian and bulk mail chairman. "Carroll Park is beautiful as it is, with the trees, grass and athletic courts."

`Unsightly'

The Dames, who have 500 members across the country, also want an end to the dig.

"Unsightly," declared Ina C. Hubard, president of the Dames' local chapter, pointing a thin finger at the excavation site.

Since 1917, the Colonial Dames have been using money from fund-raisers and their national foundation to maintain the mansion, which was built in 1754 by Charles Carroll, a barrister who helped write Maryland's first constitution. He is a cousin of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, a Maryland signer of the Declaration of Independence.

The Dames are the ones who have filled the home with many of the original furnishings and who don period clothing to give occasional tours of the often-overlooked historic museum.

And after all their care-taking and effort, they say that Charshee has not been keeping the site in proper condition and that their complaints have been ignored.

"It's not right having someone who is not cooperating with us right under our noses," Hubard said.

But Charshee said she wants to work with the Dames to find common ground.

"We are the new kids on the block, and it's difficult," she said. "Sharing turf is hard."

In the 1980s, Charshee, then a University of Maryland graduate student in history, was the mansion's curator. She was never a Colonial Dame.

She eventually left the post and started the nonprofit Carroll Park Foundation in 1991 so she could take control of the surrounding property and make plans to excavate.

Since then, she has found funding for her efforts from privation donations, as well as federal and state grants.

"They disavowed interest in archaeology in the early 1990s. It was a wise decision," Charshee said. "They have mountains of work to do inside the house."

Need to work together

Beth Cole, administrator of archaeological services for the Maryland Historical Trust, said the property has an incredible array of history, resources and evidence of 18th century life.

But she said the battling ought to stop.

"I'm not sure if it is a turf issue or a personality clash," Cole said. "I'm not sure anyone will understand it. It's a shame.

"Unless the two groups work together, the property will not realize its full potential."

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