A landmark beyond Towson hubbub

Hampton: A 33-room Georgian mansion on a historic site preserves a part of Maryland's past.


September 26, 2004|By Anne Lauren Henslee | Anne Lauren Henslee,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

A MILE from the hub of Towson's shopping district and within earshot of the Beltway, a national landmark preserves remnants of Maryland's grand and not-so-grand past.

Nearly hidden among its trees and parkland, the Hampton National Historic Site is a tale waiting to be told. However, even those who work to preserve and protect the estate can only tell part of the story. The rest, they hope, will come in time.

Hampton was a country retreat for 200 years for seven generations of Maryland's prominent Ridgely family. In its 19th-century heyday, it was the largest house in Maryland.

In the 33-room Georgian mansion, the rooms on the first two floors have been decorated to reflect a specific time period, with careful attention to re-create how it looked and was used by the Ridgely family. The third floor, which houses 10 bedrooms, has only one stairway for a point of entry and exit. For safety reasons, it is not part of the public tour.

Perhaps most impressive is the master bedroom, with its Prussian blue woodwork, floral wallpaper and rich wood furnishings, including a formal tea setting for visitors who stopped by during the mistress' monthlong recovery from childbirth.

The National Park Service, which oversees the site, follows the practice of the Ridgely servants, changing the interior furnishings with each season. For summer, the staff replaces heavy drapes with shears, puts slipcovers on the furniture and alters room displays to reflect the season.

The main house serves as a museum, welcoming 30,000 visitors a year.

What is known about life at Hampton comes mainly from records kept by the former owners. The park service, historians and land preservationists for decades have researched what life might have been like at Hampton, only to find just bits and pieces about the lives - or the identities - of hundreds of slaves who worked and lived there.

Purchased in 1745 by Charles Ridgely, the estate, known as Northampton, began as a 1,500-acre parcel that also served Ridgely's patriotic interests during the Revolutionary War. An iron foundry sold cannons and cannonballs to the army.

In 1783, Ridgely began building his mansion overlooking the property, which by the time of his death in 1790 had expanded to 12,000 acres. Childless, the Ridgelys willed the estate to nephew Charles Ridgely Carnan, on the condition that he take Ridgely as his last name.

Under the second Ridgely, who became Maryland governor in 1815, Hampton grew to 25,000 acres and expanded its business in agriculture, ironworks, quarries, horse breeding, real estate, shipping, mills and commerce.

"What makes Hampton unique is its ability to reflect the past in so many different ways," said Debra Sturm, chief of visitor services.

The site is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day of the year except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. Admission is free, and tours are offered on the hour.

Closest to the house are the buildings the Ridgelys valued most, Sturm said. Halfway down the hill are well-maintained, stone stables, which held the family's prize racehorses. Nearby are a dairy, a barn that held cows and a barn for mules.

The Emancipation Proclamation of 1862 was a turning point for the Ridgelys, who depended on free labor to perpetuate their aristocratic lifestyle. Documents say the family waited to free its slaves until Maryland changed its constitution about two years after the proclamation.

By the early 1900s, the Ridgelys ran a dairy farm and began selling land for development. In 1947, the family sold the mansion to the Avalon Foundation, a Mellon family trust, which presented it to the park service. Two years later, Hampton was designated a historic site and opened to the public.

The sixth and last Master Ridgely, John Ridgely Jr., moved from the mansion and lived in the farmhouse with his second wife, Jane Rodney Ridgely. Although he had children, he willed the property to the park service, which inherited the remainder of the estate in 1978, upon Jane Ridgely's death.

Restoration is continuing. The estate's mazelike gardens behind the house are in need of care and a landscape plan.

"At the height of its glory, the garden had 14 full-time gardeners," said Rhoda Dorsey, president of Historic Hampton Inc., a nonprofit group that assists in efforts to restore, preserve and maintain the estate. "Now there is one part-time staff member."

Archiving is a welcome challenge. "You have to be grateful for the fact that one family from 1790 to the 1940s owned it, and they were pack rats," she said.

The family left more than 45,000 objects, including furniture, toys, artwork and photographs. "So there is ... a lot to go through, a lot to study, and a lot to display," Dorsey said.

The park service, with the assistance of Historic Hampton, hopes to open other structures to the public in the near future.

Researchers, historians, volunteers and park staff have contacted local church and community groups, hoping to uncover clues of the history of Hampton's slaves. But they have had little luck.

"In places like Monticello or Montpelier, those slaves remembered," Sturm said. "That story passed down from generation to generation. We've been trying to appeal to the African-American audience, saying that we have this story. We have nothing now, but these things do take time. History takes a lot longer than all of us."

She added, "Somebody somewhere is going to open up a box and connect the dots."

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