Where restoration is Key

History: The man who purchased the Carroll County home in which Francis Scott Key was born is determined to see it restored to its period appearance.

January 05, 2003|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Gone are the modern light fixtures, the wall-to-wall carpeting and the garish paint. Soon to go are the concrete walkways and basement floor. The overhead power lines will be buried.

"It's expensive, I know, but they didn't have wires then, and I won't have them now," said William F. Chaney, the new owner of a Carroll County homestead that is linked to one of the most celebrated events in U.S. history. "New is not what you want in this house."

"This house" is Terra Rubra, birthplace of Francis Scott Key. Chaney, a retired insurance executive who recently paid $1.3 million for the two-story, four-bedroom home and the 149 acres that surround it, is determined to remove the modern intrusions - and eventually open it for tours.

"People ought to see history," said Chaney, 56, resting his tall frame against a stone monument that commemorates Key as composer of "The Star Spangled Banner" and marks the entrance to the estate.

The restoration project has attracted the attention of Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who wants the property permanently protected from development. At a recent hearing of the state Board of Public Works, Glendening asked Carroll Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge what efforts the county is making toward preserving Terra Rubra.

Gouge assured the governor that the county is working with the new owner, and she asked for state help to purchase permanent preservation easements for the land. The addition of Terra Rubra to Carroll's farmland preservation program, under which more than 40,000 acres are permanently protected, would bring to 650 the number of contiguous acres that can never be developed in the remote western Carroll County village of Keymar. Terra Rubra also is near several thousand acres of preserved land that line Big Pipe Creek.

Chaney said he is willing to negotiate with the county on the terms of an easement. But for now, he is concentrating on getting his new house in historical order.

He would like to take Terra Rubra - Latin for "red earth" - back to the time when George Washington visited it en route to Philadelphia. John Ross Key, a circuit judge and Revolutionary War army officer, often invited prominent Americans to what was then a 3,000-acre plantation. His son Francis Scott was born there in 1780.

Francis Scott Key was educated at St. John's College in Annapolis. He studied law and served as a district attorney in Washington. But he returned to Terra Rubra as often as possible until his death in 1843.

The home has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1978. An American flag flies at the entrance to the estate 24 hours a day, as decreed by an act of Congress.

Chaney, who has immersed himself in Key's life story, said he envisions tours of the home and the grounds, which include a slave cemetery, outbuildings and a cavernous barn with a slate roof, built in 1922.

From his research, he learned that the community often gathered in the barn for dances and other socials, and he would like to revive that tradition.

Peter E. Kurtze, National Register administrator for the state, said his office encourages any effort to preserve history.

"Terra Rubra is a great place, worthy of commemoration," Kurtze said. "We can all be proud that it is there."

Chaney will be eligible for state restoration tax credits, but he gives no estimate for the renovation costs, and doesn't seem to worry money. He recently spent $500,000 to restore Newcomer Farm on the Antietam Civil War battlefield in Washington County to the way it looked in 1862.

"I wanted it to look exactly as it did when Lee marched to battle on Sept. 17, 1862," Chaney said. "I want to preserve wherever it is possible. I love doing it.

The farm is now a museum, which Chaney opened to the public in June.

Two period homes

Chaney is an entrepreneur who ran an insurance agency, among other businesses, and who in June bought River Downs golf course in Finksburg for $3.25 million. He and his wife, Patrice, live in an house that dates from 1801 in Lothian in southern Anne Arundel County.

He plans to divide his time between the two homes - once Terra Rubra has been restored to his standards.

"The fixtures had to go. They were too modern," Chaney said with a slight shudder. "We will be repainting in period colors. I want everything to be as close as it can be to the 19th century, and I want it done quickly."

Inside Terra Rubra, workers are sanding floors and uncovering long-unused fireplaces in every room. They discovered a metal hearth plate stamped 1770, the year the original home was built.

When a windstorm destroyed much of the home in 1856, the family rebuilt on the same foundation. No one is certain how much of the original home was replicated, said Kurtze.

Chaney, the third owner since Key family descendants sold it, said the most recent residents lived at Terra Rubra for 29 years and did a good job preserving the home's character. He has no plans to tamper with the modernized kitchen, but the Star Wars wallpaper in one bedroom will be scrapped.

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