THE STRUCTURES are as grand in appearance as they are rich in history.
And the family names behind them resemble a roster of prominent old-line Harford County families: Hess. Voss. Keene.
These striking residences - and the stories behind them and their occupants - will open Saturday to visitors with an appetite for architecture, history and the lifestyles of the well-to-do.
Several sprawling homes, many with opulent gardens, in rural Harford and northern Baltimore counties make up the final leg of the Maryland House and Garden Pilgrimage 2005, a statewide event that began last month with a walking tour of historical sites in Chestertown in Kent County.
"They are the plums of the manor," Alice Ober, one of the event's organizers, said of the homes on the Harford tour. "They are all lovely houses and part of the most beautiful countryside."
The Maryland House and Garden Pilgrimage is a nonprofit organization that helps preserve and restore architecturally significant properties throughout the state. Proceeds from the tours go to designated projects in the participating counties.
The are eight sites on Saturday's self-guided tour, including Ladew Topiary Gardens, where lunch will be available.
The first stop is Willow Oaks, a two-story brick mansion on Jarrettsville Pike near Jacksonville. It sits atop rolling hills two miles off the main road and provides breathtaking views from all directions.
Originally known as Good Will Farm and home to the Hess family, the late-1700s house is owned today by Jerry and Caroline Stautberg, who moved in about 20 years ago.
Much of the house's history that the Stautbergs are aware of comes from neighbors and old documents.
"I had an old gentleman come and visit and say he was born in the house," said Caroline Stautberg. "He's a Hess. ... The house has so many additions, its architectural style is a little Georgian and a little Colonial, but it doesn't have a single style. It's just a great hodgepodge of styles and designs which make it unique."
From Willow Oaks, the tour proceeds to Ladew Gardens, and then to the third stop, Atlanta Hall on Pocock Road.
The home was built in 1762 and was owned by multiple generations of the Hutchins family and, later, the Vosses, who purchased the farm in the 1930s.
Edward Voss and his wife, Elsa, were the first members of the family to reside there. Edward is known for his watercolor works of equestrian subjects while Elsa worked with bronze sculpture. Her work is on display in three U.S. museums.
When Elsa died, 23 years ago, Thomas and Mimi Voss moved into the house. At that time, they added a kitchen and a family room. "We have kids and dogs, and this is their home, too," said Mimi Voss. "It's just home."
The Vosses say they are continuing a tradition that started with Edward and Elsa.
"When Edward and Elsa moved to the area from Long Island they had to do extensive renovations on the property," Mimi Voss said. "They turned the cow barn into their home while the work was being done on the main house. Then it [the barn] was used as an art studio. We use it as a guesthouse, or the kids use it when their friends visit as a place to hang out."
The property remains a working horse farm. Thomas is a thoroughbred horse trainer and works with more than 40 horses.
A striking feature of the farm is the stables, painted the same bright yellow as the main house.
Then it's on to Andor Farm, on Houcks Mill Road.
Richard McGaw built the home during the 1760s. Today's owners are Laura and Taylor Pickett, who purchased the house in 1999.
"I grew up in this area, and I knew this house," Laura Pickett said. "It's a wonderful old house with the greatest history."
She has spent the past five years compiling the history of the property. Her research has helped uncover facts about the building of the original structure.
"The original house was only one room deep," she said. "The bricks used to build the house were made on the property and cost $87.37. The mahogany wood used to build the staircase cost $19.33, and it was carved on the farm."
As she tells the story of the most famed owner of the property, Foxhall Keene, she pulls out a book, Full Tilt: The Memoirs of Foxhall Keene, and reads an excerpt about an event at the house.
The story tells of the house named Foxhall Farms, in 1919, by Keene when he purchased it, and a horse race Keene inaugurated at the property. He was worried no one would show up. But when race day came, visitors overwhelmed the farm, and Keene served food to more than 700 people and sent others to alternate sites for dinner.
The architectural style of the house is obscured by expansions and renovations that altered the exterior. However, the tilting floors and crooked trim around the windows give the house a unique character.
"The floors do slant in some places," Laura Pickett said. "But, the foundation is strong. This house is a fortress. The walls are about 20 inches thick and made of brick and stone."
Laura said they noticed the slanting floors right away but only made renovations in areas where necessary. One such repair turned up a pleasant surprise.
"We had one floor we had to make even," said Laura. "When we pulled up the main floor, it had a wooden floor underneath it. The wood was beautiful. I asked the architect if we could make kitchen cabinets from the wood. ... It has an old look to it, but that's what makes it so wonderful."
Other houses on Saturday's tour include: Dovecote on Houcks Mill Road; Hanlon House on Old York Road; Fox Harbor on Hunter Mill Road, and Price Akehurst House on York Road.
Tickets for the Maryland House and Garden Pilgrimage tour are $25 and can be purchased the day of the tour or in advance. Lunch will be available from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. for $12.50 at Ladew Topiary Gardens. The sites will be open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, visit www.mhgp.org or call 410-821-6933.