Belmont -- island of retreat

Estate: An 18th-century manor house surrounded by Patapsco Valley State Park in Elkridge thrives as a conference center where executives and wedding parties stay overnight.

July 22, 2002|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

At the end of a milelong, one-lane road lined with trees stands an Elkridge manor house built when Maryland was a colony.

It's a metaphorical island in a county where post-1960s architecture dominates, a literal island surrounded by the vast Patapsco Valley State Park. Named for its view, Belmont - "beautiful mountain" - was home to a prominent Howard County family for generations.

But unlike some of the county's brick-and-mortar survivors of history, Belmont is as lively today as it ever was. It's a conference and retreat center.

Its owner, the American Chemical Society, has a small advertising budget for the business. But word of mouth and repeat business work pretty well when you've got an 85-acre, 18th-century estate sitting a mile from Interstate 95.

"You go back in time," said sales manager Michelle Rosata.

Preservationists call this "adaptive reuse," and they consider Belmont a good example of how down-in-the-mouth gems elsewhere can be saved. A building in use is a building protected, said Fred Dorsey, vice president of Preservation Howard County.

"It's an outstanding property," said Dorsey, who can think of at least a dozen other historic homes that are living new, less private lives.

The arrangement suits the handful of neighbors on the one-lane Belmont Woods Road, which the American Chemical Society maintains. Kevin Gaynor, who has lived nearby for 13 years, was delighted when he had the opportunity to buy his 25 acres.

"It's amazing how many people don't know about Belmont," he said. "It's beautiful. If I had enough money, I'd buy it."

Its history reaches back to 1738, when Caleb and Priscilla Dorsey built the Georgian-style manor house on a crest of a hill that overlooks a sweeping lawn. The land was their wedding present.

Priscilla Dorsey Ridgely, whose husband was governor of Maryland from 1816 to 1819, was born in the gabled brick-and-stucco building.

The estate topped 3,200 acres at its height. By the 1830s, a widowed granddaughter of the original couple was forced to sell pieces of the land to stay afloat. In 1875, the property went to a sheriff's auction, but the family successfully contested the sale in court.

Eighty-five years ago, Belmont passed to Mary Bowdoin Bruce, a Dorsey descendant, and her husband, Howard Bruce. They owned the ultra-competitive steeplechase horse Billy Barton. The horse made it onto the cover of Time and was buried in 1951 behind the old stone barn - upright and with full tack on.

The next Bruce to own the property gave it to the Smithsonian Institution in 1964, which transformed Belmont into a conference center used for secretive meetings by generals, vice presidents and astronauts.

Corporate executives and wedding parties are more likely to stay overnight nowadays.

Society's renovations

The American Chemical Society, which bought the property in 1983 for the bargain price of $780,000, renovated the yellow mansion and outbuildings, wired them for Internet access, brought the formal terraced gardens back to life and preserved the aged boxwood aisle as a place down which brides could march.

It's not cheap, and it's not a couple-oriented bed and breakfast, though meals are cooked on site by chefs.

Overnight guests must come in groups of at least 10, with rates ranging from $260 to $340 a person. Day packages cost $75 a head. Wedding parties can stay overnight for $3,750. Picnickers must come in groups of at least 100, with a $1,200 rental fee for four hours on the grounds and $16.50 a person for the food.

The public doesn't often get the chance to come in and wander around, but Belmont is planning to play host to a summer concert Aug. 24 and a fund-raiser for Preservation Howard County on Sept. 29.

"We want more of the county and the public to know about us," said Belmont's general manager, Anne Johnson.

Though the remaining 85 acres is but a fraction of the land Belmont once surveyed, the Patapsco Valley park surrounding it includes more than 500 of the Dorseys' original acres, donated by the Bruces and the Smithsonian.

Buffered from subdivisions, it retains the illusion of a grand estate.

"It's worked well," said Rick Shilling, the grounds and maintenance manager, whose small staff has to mow grass or vacuum leaves constantly from March through November.

Family affair

Shilling, who grew up in Elkridge, never thought he would be working at Belmont. But family history is hard to overcome.

His grandfather was the Bruces' farm manager and Billy Barton's trainer, he said. His father, born on the estate, was recruited by the Smithsonian to live in the mansion for a few years during the transition and later managed the grounds.

Like a `vacation'

Sixteen years ago, Shilling, 39, came on as the horticulturist. Five years ago, he moved his young family into one of the smaller houses on the property (originally built for the chauffeur, he thinks).

"It's like being on a little vacation," he said, sitting under a pavilion with a view of rolling land. "I think the kids take it for granted. They don't know any better."

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