Lawmakers get the inside view of Blandair, a historic fixer-upper

Howard's state delegation tours rickety mansion targeted for restoration

Lawmakers show little optimism about state funding for restoration

Columbia

October 08, 2003|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

The rotting splendor of Blandair was on full display yesterday for members of Howard County's State House delegation, who toured the badly deteriorated 19th-century Columbia mansion that county officials envision as the centerpiece of a regional park.

A year after their initial request for funding was rejected by the General Assembly, the lawmakers will try in the next legislative session to obtain a $500,000 state grant to begin work on the preservation and restoration of the mansion. County Executive James N. Robey has submitted the bond bill request to the delegation and committed $500,000 in matching funds.

"There's not a lot to preserve in Howard County, and what we have we ought to preserve or it will be gone soon," said Democratic Del. Frank S. Turner, chairman of the county's 11-member House delegation and the organizer of yesterday's tour.

The county purchased the 300-acre Blandair estate in 1998 with the intention of creating a regional park. In addition to the restoration of the once-grand manor house, park plans include ball fields, tennis courts, trails and a nature center - projects that might not be completed for 10 years - at an estimated cost of $15 million, said Gary J. Arthur, director of the county Department of Recreation and Parks, which is coordinating the project.

He said the first priority is to ensure that the house is structurally sound and to repair and reglaze the windows and doors. A fabric covering that county workers installed on the roof to reduce water damage is effective for a maximum of six years, Arthur said.

Before the tour, legislators cautioned Arthur not to count on getting the restoration money this time, but pledged they would push hard for the funding.

"The chances of getting $500,000 from us and from the county could be slim," said Republican Sen. Sandra B. Schrader. "We have to look at what is a realistic chunk of money we'll be able to get."

The county also has applied for federal money for the project.

Meanwhile, recreation and parks employees are working to prepare the house for restoration. They stripped vines that covered some walls and removed countless bags of trash from the interior.

The last resident of Blandair was Elizabeth C. "Nancy" Smith, whose father bought Blandair in 1937. A reclusive, eccentric woman, Smith lived alone on the property until her death in 1997, caring for her horses, farm animals and pets, while keeping developers at bay.

"She had a certain philosophy about how she wanted to live her life, and you have to admire the woman for sticking to that philosophy," Arthur said.

After a legal struggle because Smith died without leaving a will, the county purchased the Blandair estate from her heirs for $10.7 million.

The five delegation members who attended the walk-through - Turner, Schrader, Democratic Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, and Democratic Dels. Elizabeth Bobo and Neil F. Quinter - paused in the spacious foyer to take in the peeling, faded wallpaper and the water-damaged ceiling. Most of the good furniture was auctioned by Smith's relatives, but the white marble fireplaces and ornamental plaster castings conveyed a sense of Blandair's former grandeur.

The kitchen, with its Frigidaire, rusted cooking pans and soapstone sink, drew gasps from the group, which also included Robey's chief legislative aide, Herman Charity, and representatives of two other delegates.

Upstairs, a tattered, pale blue woman's suit and a black dress hung in bedroom closets.

And Schrader couldn't help herself when she spied a letter in a bathroom addressed to Nancy Smith and postmarked Dec. 14, 1938. The note from Lucy B. Cherbonnier thanked Smith for a visit to Blandair and sent holiday greetings.

The group also viewed some of the outbuildings on the property, including servant and slave quarters, a smokehouse, spring house and homes of tenant farmers.

Arthur said Blandair might get a bit of sprucing up soon because the property is the site of an International Preservation Trades Workshop, beginning tomorrow and continuing through Saturday.

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