Mansion receives new generation

Birthright: A man moves his family into historic Sion Hill near Havre de Grace.

May 30, 2004|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

Jonathan Green has packed up his wife, six children and all his earthly goods and returned to his family home on a hill overlooking Havre de Grace.

It may not sound like big news, until one considers that Green is the scion of an American naval dynasty, and the home, Sion Hill, is one of Maryland's most historic.

"This place is my family's legacy," the 45-year-old Green said, standing on the front porch with a sweeping vista of the Chesapeake Bay and adjacent farmland. "We're stewards. We're going to be here for a while and fill it with life."

Green, a commercial real estate agent, is the sixth generation of his family to live at Sion Hill, which was built in the late 18th century as a boys' school. The home is a pastoral piece of history in the fast-growing southeast corner of Harford County.

While many homes dating to the beginning of the nation remain in Maryland, state historians say, most are owned by museums, foundations or private groups. Those still in the hands of the original family number only a handful.

"We're talking about a house that has a continuity that is quite extraordinary," said Edward C. Papenfuse, the state archivist, adding that the Green family is carrying on an obligation to preserve the house so it will remain "a tribute to what the house stands for and the family."

Green and his wife, Diane, say that while they want to maintain the integrity of Sion Hill, they also want it to feel like home for their children, who range in age from 2 to 12.

"All my great ideas and plans go back to what [the rooms] originally were," Green said of making changes. "And that's good. Less is better."

Diane Green said the decision to move the family from Ellicott City to Sion Hill was not made quickly. She and her husband considered it for five years, until one night at dinner, she reached across the table and grabbed his hand and said, "If this is something you really want, I can't take it away from you."

Green said his mother, Ann, who is now in her 80s, offered the house to him a while ago but that he wasn't ready to make the transition at the time. "We had to consider relocating a young family. It's a very old place. Just maintaining it would be a very expensive endeavor," he said. "That's a lot of grass to cut."

While modern amenities such as plumbing and electricity have been added - and the kitchen remodeled - Green said much of the rest of the 16-room house has remained the same. The expansive center hall has looked the same for more than a century, according to old photos.

55 acres preserved

Under the stewardship of his mother, about 55 acres of the more than 200 surrounding the house have been preserved. A farmer leases the dairy operation on the property.

The house was built in the 1780s as a boys school by the Rev. John Ireland, rector of nearby St. George's (Spesutia) Episcopal Church, according to state historian Christopher Weeks, who wrote extensively about Sion Hill in his 1996 book, An Architectural History of Harford County. Weeks says that Colin Shrimpton, a librarian for the Duke of Northumberland, suggests that the name "Sion Hill" derives from a property called Sion Hill at Twickenham, England.

When the school's popularity waned, Ireland sold the property in 1795 to Gideon Denison. His daughter, Minerva, inherited the house, where she lived with her husband, John Rodgers, an adventurous naval officer whose parents ran an inn and ferry service in Havre de Grace.

Rodgers, who once served on the USS Constellation, rose through the Navy's ranks and was a hero of the War of 1812, when he helped fend off the British at Hampstead Hill, today part of Patterson Park in East Baltimore.

He attained the rank of commodore, headed the Board of Navy Commissioners and negotiated with Ottoman Empire leaders during his more than three-decade career, said James Cheevers, associate director of the U.S. Naval Academy Museum in Annapolis.

During a tour of duty in the Mediterranean in the 1820s, Rodgers acquired a silver service that is still in use today at Buchanan House, the Naval Academy superintendent's quarters, Cheevers said.

`An amazing family'

"It's just an amazing family," Cheevers said, adding that he talks to many students about the Rodgers legacy. "He was a Marylander, a native of the area, and I think that should be important to us around here."

Through John and Minerva Rodgers' 11 children, and their descendants - as well as Rodgers' brother, also a naval commander - the family founded a military dynasty that included several commodores, commanders, a rear admiral and an early naval aviator.

Through marriage, the family is related to Commodore Matthew Perry, whose trade negotiations opened Japan to the United States in the 1850s, and Montgomery Meigs, quartermaster of the Union army during the Civil War and an engineer who designed several buildings in the nation's capital, as well as the Washington Aqueduct.

Jonathan Green is Meigs' great-great-grandson.

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