Museum emerging in an unlikely spot

Culture: A former icehouse, set 6 feet underground on the Liriodendron estate, soon will house a collection of American Indian artifacts.

October 26, 2003|By Hanah Cho | Hanah Cho,SUN STAFF

LIKE THE Liriodendron estate itself, the icehouse built on the mansion's grounds has survived and outlasted its original purpose.

At one point, the icehouse was used as a chicken coop. Then it became a bachelors' and bachelorettes' pad for schoolteachers during the 1960s and 1970s.

In the past two decades, however, the small structure, which is at least 6 feet underground, has been empty.

Now, the icehouse is being transformed into a museum that will permanently house a collection of American Indian artifacts - adding another dimension to the mansion, which sponsors art exhibits, lectures and concerts.

The Liriodendron house has been a cultural center for Harford County residents and visitors from across Maryland for more than two decades.

The 19th-century mansion was built on 200 acres of grassy knoll in Bel Air as a summer home for Dr. Howard Atwood Kelly, his wife, Laetitia, and their nine children.

Tulip poplars

Kelly, a surgeon and a founding member of Johns Hopkins Hospital, commissioned the house for his Prussian wife, who missed European summers. The doctor named the mansion Liriodendron - Latin for tulip poplars.

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

The day-to-day operations are administered by the private, nonprofit Liriodendron Foundation under the direction of Harford County's Department of Parks and Recreation.

Over the years, the mansion has undergone several renovations, including restoring the roof to its original wood shingles and installing new Oriental carpets in some rooms, said Paul Edmeades, a Bel Air architect and departing president of the foundation.

Most important, the original moldings on the fireplaces and windows are intact, preserving the historic value of the house, Edmeades said.

"We think of the mansion as a Harford County treasure," said Dorothy Francis, the house's executive director. "In the early '80s, people didn't know we were here. We were a well-kept secret."

Popular attraction

That's not the case anymore.

From March through December each year, thousands of visitors pass through the house to see the latest contemporary art exhibits displayed in the second-floor gallery of four rooms. In addition, the mansion - listed on the National Register of Historic Places - is the site for about 100 receptions, social events and weddings annually.

"It's important for Liriodendron to be known as more than a wedding facility," Francis said. "It's important that we be known for its museum."

Now with the American Indian museum slated to open in January, Francis and foundation members say they are looking forward to new visitors.

"Most of our art exhibits are conventional and contemporary," said Dave Davis, the foundation's treasurer and Kelly's great-grandson. "It's a great way to add a lot of diversity. It's great to have a place to display these things and provide more access to the public for this kind of information."

The idea to open a new museum was spurred by the success of an American Indian exhibit at the mansion several years ago and a desire to preserve the icehouse. Heading the project is Dan Coates, president of the Northern Chesapeake Archeological Society and another great-grandson of Kelly.

"We're really trying to tell an economic story," said Coates, 58, who is a helicopter pilot for the Maryland National Guard. "We're trying to tell people why the Indians lived at this place. We want the kids to understand that there are reasons beyond what they see. To them, a food source is a local supermarket, which is everywhere. For Indians, you had to live near a food source and follow the food source."

The icehouse is behind the Liriodendron mansion, along a path leading to the parking lot. Only its new slate roof is visible above ground with its foundation and building beneath the earth. Inside the 400-square-foot structure, renovations that began a year ago are continuing. The wooden frame of the interior wall is visible, waiting to be covered with drywall. The heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system needs to be installed, as well.

4 historical periods

Once completed, the museum will display a collection covering four historical periods - Paleoindian, Archaic, Woodland and contact with European traders - ranging from 11,000 B.C. to about the early 1600s.

The exhibit will cover, at least, the existence of the Susquehannock Indians, who archaeologists believe were living around modern-day Harford County, near the Susquehanna River, when they came into contact with early European traders, said Bob Wall, an archaeologist and an adjunct professor at Towson University, who has been hired as a consultant for the museum.

Although the exhibit design is in development, a model of the museum shows a preliminary layout of the space.

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