Restoration begins at Blandair mansion

Workers are peeling back layers of history at a rundown manor house in Columbia


Rene Laya, Dale Lupton and Scott Jones sat on scaffolding in the steamy sunshine dozens of feet above the ground, carefully removing bricks from a roof cornice built a century and a half ago for a place called Blandair.

It is careful, tedious, sweaty work, peeling back the layers of history to prepare for a $1.8 million restoration of the late Elizabeth Smith's once jealously guarded home. The men work for the National Park Service's Historic Preservation Training Center, based in Frederick, and their efforts have begun the transformation of a secluded, rundown farm into a 300-acre park intended to be a new jewel in Columbia.

Major obstacles remain, not the least of which is figuring a way to provide easy access to the park, which is bisected by Route 175. But Gary J. Arthur, the county recreation director, said he is pleased that work finally has begun after more than eight years of legal battles and delays since the death of the reclusive Smith in 1997.

"It's quite an operation," said Arthur of the restoration of the old brick house. The work began in April on a site now circled by barbed-wire fences, and high metal scaffolding lines the exterior walls of the smaller wing.

Christopher McGuigan, the National Park Service's project manager, said his crew is doing the exterior masonry, roof and trim work and window and door-frame repairs, all of which should be done by winter. Next year comes more work on the windows, doors and porches, followed by interior work.

McGuigan said his crew, which includes Chuck Anderson and Sharon Feeney, also is teaching county recreation maintenance workers how to preserve the building.

Feeney helped restore a historic log barn in Howard County's Rockburn Park last year.

"We've been real impressed with this group. They do all the historic buildings in Washington, D.C." said Ken Alban, capital projects manager with the Howard County Department Recreation and Parks.

The county has funds to restore the house, but more is needed for a clutch of deteriorating structures including barns, tenant houses and a former slave quarters, Alban said.

Funding for park

No funds for park development have been allocated, but the county plans to use a southern portion of the land for active recreation, leaving most of the northern section for passive uses.

The main house replaced an 18th-century structure, but it has been neglected for decades, officials said. Indoor plumbing, electricity and other modern systems were installed when the Smiths bought it in 1937.

Blandair is named for Theodorick Bland, a prominent Maryland official and slave owner who bought the property in 1845.

His granddaughter, Sophia Mayo, got the land as a wedding gift in 1857, and the house likely was built then, according to research done by Thomas A. Reinhart.

Elizabeth Smith's father, Henry died in 1939, and after her mother died in 1979, the house and farm entered a period of steady decline.

A court battle accompanied nearly every change in ownership, Reinhart found - something repeated when Howard County bought it, with state help, in 1998 for $10.7 million. The county fought a claim by Byron Hall, a devoted friend and adviser to Smith.

The reclusive owner had hated the idea that a suburban city was rising around her and that the state took 14 acres of her land and cut the farm in half by extending Route 175 west to the new city.

Now, two chimneys on the 8,000-square-foot house's smaller wing are restored. Laya, Upton, and Jones have peeled back the temporary poly-nylon fabric protecting the roof, and cut off the portions of the original lead/tin alloy metal roof surface beneath to get at the rotted ends of roof beams and attic joists, and the loose bricks beneath them.

Each night, they place temporary plywood panels over the exposed structure and replace the tarp.

The metal roof was "rusted and pinholed bad," said Mike Logan, a county parks worker, who has been helping to care for the old mansion.

A modern version of the same metal roof will come from the same West Virginia factory that produced the original, McGuigan said.

Soft mortar

Over time, the original soft mortar between the bricks has eroded - with considerable help from vines, snakes, mice, bees and other insects, the workers said.

Rain gutters disappeared years ago, and in one spot where Feeney worked a large hole in the sub-roof planks developed where water had leaked through.

The mortar was designed to be soft, Feeney said, to allow for movement in the wall without risking breakage to the bricks.

The crew carefully placed each brick on the scaffolding platform in the same configuration the bricks once occupied on the wall, so they can be restored. New oak and pine boards, matching the type used in the originals, will be joined to the existing roof beams, while masons replace the bricks and mortar.

The new mortar is being imported from France, Scott said, to match the limestone mixture used in the original construction. Feeney showed a spot on a rafter where the Roman numeral "XIII" was etched by the builder to note where it was to be placed in the roof.

In this kind of work, care, patience and accuracy are prized above the commercial construction priorities on speed and cost savings, said Jones, who has worked for the park service for years, including on a project at Fort Caroline, an 18th-century plantation near Jacksonville, Fla.

"It's always difficult and unpredictable," he said.

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