Mansion's history a work in progress

While Essex preservationists restore 200-year-old Ballestone, the story of its past is still being written

October 29, 2006|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,Special to The Sun

About 200 years ago, a two-story Federal-style mansion was built in Essex.

Many years later, although little was known about the structure, Baltimore County purchased the land surrounding it and announced the house would be torn down.

In response, some local citizens headed to the state archives in Annapolis to learn more about the property. What they found was enough to save it from destruction.

"During a title search, the land the house stands on was erroneously identified as the property of George Washington's great-grandfather," said Michael Bosse, 47, who became the curator of the house about a decade ago. "As it turns out, that house was on the adjoining land."

However, before the truth was discovered, members of the Heritage Society of Essex and the Essex-Middle River Bicentennial Committee began in 1974 preservation work on the property, then known as Ballestone Mansion.

In 1977, members of those organizations and other civic-minded citizens formed the Ballestone Preservation Society.

Raising more than $250,000, the group spent decades renovating the structure, creating an exhibit space, reproducing and purchasing period furnishings and researching the lineage of the property and main house. Today, preservation society members are gearing up to begin exterior work - that could cost another $250,000 - on the property.

"The exterior of the house is a little more complicated to work on," said Bosse. "The county owns it so we are limited in what we can do to the house." But, he says, restoring the house's exterior to its 1880s appearance and doing some period landscaping are on preservationists' wish list.

But when the time comes, there isn't a lot to go on, he said.

"There are no clear dates on the beginning of the house," Bosse said. "But we can tell by the design that it's circa 1790-1810. Unfortunately, there's a lot of history missing."

The earliest known photographs of the house date to the mid-1880s, Bosse said. "But we haven't located any letters, wills or diaries that pertain to the property."

Before Baltimore County bought the land in 1969, the mansion was in quite a state of disrepair. The front two-tiered portico and columns were missing, the woodwork had been stripped from the house, most of the flooring was gone, several windows were boarded up and the interior stairs had been removed.

"It was just an old farmhouse," Bosse said. "And park representatives saw it as nothing more than that."

That was until the house was incorrectly identified as being on the land owned by Washington's great-grandfather. Instead of leveling the house, efforts to preserve it began.

In 1975, Ballestone Manor was named to the National Register of Historic Places. Operating under the auspices of Baltimore County Recreation and Parks, the mansion was restored as a nonprofit living-history museum and exhibit space, Bosse said.

"We wanted to show the house in context," he said. "We wanted people to be able to walk into the house and see it as it was when the original owner walked out the door."

Because of the lack of documentation on the house's original furnishings, or photos showing the interior of the early house, the society has resorted to traveling to other properties built during the same time for furnishing pointers, Bosse said.

"We looked at furnishings, colors and fabrics," he said. "We created things that may have been in a middle-class house."

Period furnishings were purchased from antique shows and auctions held up and down the East Coast, Bosse said.

For the thousands of history lovers who descend on the house year-round, it is decorated with furnishings dating between 1780 and 1880, to interpret the changes in American decorative arts during that 100-year period, he said.

"But the future of a historic home is never etched in granite," Bosse said.

Historians are constantly finding out new information, which could subject the house's interior to change, he said.

"That kind of thing is happening more and more often," Bosse said. "As a result, people at places like Colonial Williamsburg are completely reinterpreting the entire town. And Mount Vernon did the same thing. Historic preservation and historic interpretation is constantly in a flux."

But for now, the house is period-correct.

"We'll probably never be completely finished with our preservation work," Bosse said. "But we will try to make sure the house is representative of the most up-to-date research and findings."

And with that in mind, earlier this year, the house was renamed the Ballestone-Stansbury House, adding the name of the family that owned the house until 1819. "But after 27 years of being called Ballestone, we couldn't entirely eliminate that from its name," Bosse said.

As the number of visitors at the house increases, preservation society members aren't sure what appeals more to visitors - the museum or the strange events that are said to occur in the house.

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