Liriodendron estate offers culture with warm hospitality

Museum: Dr. Howard Atwood Kelly's Bel Air family mansion carries on a tradition that was built on love.

October 27, 2002|By Karin Remesch | Karin Remesch,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Step into Liriodendron mansion and you immediately feel welcomed. A sense of warmth and family seems to fill the spacious, yet intimate rooms. You almost expect members of the Kelly family to rush down the grand staircase to greet you - all of them, Dr. Howard Atwood Kelly, his wife, Laetitia, and their nine children.

This is not a stuffy museum where visitors are confined to walking along narrow pathways to view furniture and paintings cordoned off with velvet ropes. Instead, it is a palatial villa where people are allowed to roam freely to take in the history of a well-known family that lived through the turn of the last century.

"We don't really like to think of it as a museum ... something that's static. We rather view it as a house that's alive and creative," says Paul Edmeades, a Bel Air architect and president of the Liriodendron Foundation.

And it is said that Liriodendron is a house that love built.

The 19th-century mansion at the end of West Gordon Street in Bel Air was built on 200 acres of farmland in 1898 as a summer home for the Kellys.

Dr. Kelly was a surgeon, author, scientist and humanitarian, and one of the "Big Four" physicians who founded Johns Hopkins Hospital.

He commissioned noted architect J.B. Noel Wyatt, whose work dominates downtown Baltimore, to design the house as a cure for his Prussian wife's homesickness for European summers. His wife enjoyed life at their Eutaw Place home in Baltimore, but was not fond of their camplike summer retreat in northern Ontario, Canada.

The T-shaped Liriodendron mansion, named for the giant tulip poplar trees (Liriodendron tulipiferas) that tower over the estate, was built on top of a knoll to capture the view and the cool breeze.

The building's classical facade is topped by a huge baroque cartouche in the central gable. Elaborate Ionic columns frame the main entrance. A stone balustrade is at the front terrace, canopied by wisteria. Semielliptical porches project from each side, both large enough to hold an orchestra for outdoor concerts.

Inside, the spacious mansion is centered by a 26-foot entrance hall. Ornate and detailed carvings on the mantel - there are 12 fireplaces in the house - cornices and moldings command your attention. That craftsmanship continues to be found throughout the house. Elaborate chandeliers add a warm glow. The downstairs reception rooms flow into one another, allowing light, air and people to move about freely.

"The fabulous moldings, the fireplaces, the windows are all original and they have been carefully restored to their original splendor," Edmeades said.

He said the roof was recently restored to its original wood shingles and the ice house on the property is being renovated as a museum that will house the collection of Native American artifacts owned by Daniel Coates, Kelly's great-grandson.

The mansion and its surrounding grounds are owned by Harford County and administered by the private, nonprofit Liriodendron Foundation under the direction of the Harford County Department of Parks and Recreation.

Harford County acquired the Kelly estate in 1972 as part of the Open Space Program. The mansion and grounds became county property when the mansion's last owner, Dr. Kelly's son Friedrich "Fritz" H. Kelly, died in 1980.

His widow, Margaret "Peggy" Kelly, still lives on the grounds in a smaller house. And, she says, she didn't mind at all leaving the mansion for her present home.

"It was much too large for me and my dog and there were too many windows to wash," she said with a laugh.

Family tradition

At age 85, Peggy Kelly is still much involved with the business of the estate. She is a board member of the Liriodendron Foundation. Kelly enjoys reminiscing about the 45 years she, her husband and three children lived there.

Liriodendron was "quiet and peaceful" for most of the year, until the summer when the Kelly clan arrived from Baltimore, she said.

"Then it was one big party," she said. "Neighbors and their children would join the family in the swimming pool." It was Harford's first in-ground swimming pool.

There also would be horseback riding and croquet tournaments on the manicured lawns.

After the death of Dr. Kelly and his wife - they died within six hours of each other in January 1943, neither one aware the other was dying - Fritz Kelly carried on the family tradition of hospitality. The summer parties and weekend festivities continued and many area residents still fondly remember the fun of sledding parties in the winter.

Cultural center

Today, the Liriodendron Foundation offers the same hospitality.

The house has been turned into a cultural center that sponsors art exhibits, lectures, concerts, weddings and receptions. Now through Dec. 15, the four galleries on the second floor house an exhibition of contemporary and antique dollhouses.

"To view this house properly, you view it at an event. ... The house complements an event and facilitates it. It was meant to be filled with people," Edmeades said.

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