Mansion is place out of time

Blandair: Help may be on the way for the aging centerpiece of a Howard County estate. The house promises to repay preservers with lessons in architectural history.

September 17, 2002|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

The mysterious mansion in the most populous part of Columbia -- longtime home of a woman who prized her privacy -- is living a quiet life of deterioration, its halls empty and its windows boarded up.

But a whirl of attention and activity is bearing down on the imposing house on the 300-acre Blandair estate.

Howard County's parks department has picked National Park Service preservationists to restore it. Maryland Historical Trust experts -- eager to get the house and its outbuildings on the National Register of Historic Places -- are busy studying it. A committee of residents is figuring out who should move in when it is once again grand; groups are already in line.

Then there is the 500-strong crowd expected when the annual International Preservation Trades Workshop sets up on the county-owned property for three days next year.

After decades of intense interest in the valuable swath of land that surrounds them, the 19th-century buildings of Blandair -- clustered just north of Route 175 -- are finally getting their due.

"Blandair is an incredible site, and someone should show interest in it -- we're definitely interested," Anthony M. Cohen, executive director of the Menare Foundation, which is looking for an appropriate place to set up a living-history farm.

"There's so few places remaining in Maryland that I think can tell a story of its time in a visual and tangible way as Blandair can," Cohen said.

That is largely because of its reclusive last owner, who spent most of her 82 years on the property. Elizabeth C. "Nancy" Smith, who chased off developers and government preservationists alike, made limited changes to the aged buildings.

The red brick mansion, which Maryland Historical Trust experts believe was built in the late 1850s, still has its original woodwork and nails. Many of the walls haven't been painted since the turn of the century.

Within a short stroll outside are a slave quarter built about 1845, a meat house, three barns, a springhouse, two tenant houses, three 20th-century sheds and a few structures that have collapsed.

Howard County -- which bought the land from Smith's relatives in 1998, the year after she died -- intends to transform Blandair into a regional park for all to see.

"It is a wonderful example of the evolution of agriculture," said Thomas Reinhart, the historical trust's administrator of architectural research. "In a place like Howard County, which has experienced such developmental pressures in the second half of the 20th century, it is remarkable that it's managed to stay intact."

Reinhart plans to write his master's thesis on Blandair. He's been visiting the property regularly all summer, even climbing into the pitch-black attic to investigate building materials.

On Friday, he returned with co-worker Marcia M. Miller to check on the small details that can speak volumes to architectural historians.

"I want to get the height of the doorways," he said, striding across the dusty main hall with a tape measure. "This passage is slightly higher than the rooms: It creates a grander space."

An early Italianate design with touches of Greek Revival, the 23-room house is irregular in the fashion popular among the period's wealthy, Reinhart said. Its ornate first floor -- 12-foot-high ceilings, marble fireplaces and doors with wide moldings -- was designed with guests in mind.

But the second and third floors are simple, even austere in places.

As he worked his way through the wing, Reinhart ducked to get into a small pink room with a pitched ceiling so low that even at its highest spot he had to slouch his 6-foot frame slightly.

"This is servant space -- this is slave quarter," he said, gazing at the 19th-century finish on the walls.

From a historian's point of view, the mansion is in great shape: fully intact, with concessions to the 20th century, such as bathrooms, tucked away in the wing.

"Since 1937, virtually nothing has been done to the building," said Clara Gouin, a county park planner who stopped in to see the house through Reinhart's eyes. "It was really untouched."

But it's in a sad state otherwise.

Water damage from the once-leaking roof has left gaping holes in the ceiling and broken pieces of plaster on the floor below. The time-stained wallpaper is peeling off in strips, and the window panes are broken. Everything is touched with a faint musty smell.

Restoration may be far off: The contract with National Park Service staff -- which the County Council must approve -- doesn't specify a timeline or how much will be spent, in part because no one knows when money will be available.

Howard County's Department of Recreation and Parks has about $275,000 in the Blandair fund. Director Gary J. Arthur has been told the mansion work alone could cost $2 million.

"The Park Service will only do what we have money to do," he said. "It offers some flexibility in the way that we go about the renovations. ... Money is an issue."

That's been true even in good economic years. A 19th-century one-room schoolhouse donated to the county in 1988 is finally closing in on its reconstruction date -- this winter, if all goes well. But Blandair's aged gems are already benefiting from creativity in a pinch.

"Because we couldn't give money, we're giving our time," said Reinhart, whose Maryland Historical Trust is also budget-crunched. "It has a rich history. The work needed to be done."

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