Restoring a grand slice of Md. life

Reopening of Towson mansion is tentatively set for this fall

January 04, 2007|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,sun reporter

Orange construction netting surrounds the 18th-century mansion. Plaster dust has crumbled to the floors in the once-stately rooms. Paint is peeling on the grand exterior doors and along the handcrafted moldings.

But still, Greg McGuire has something to show off.

The crews are more than half-done with the renovations to the Georgian mansion at the Hampton National Historic Site, says McGuire, the facilities manager, as he surveys the drilling through a second-floor ceiling.

A new air conditioning and heating system is being installed, and cosmetic repairs are to follow, as part of the $1.6 million project. National Park Service employees and volunteers are beginning to plan the reopening of the 33-room mansion this year.

The mansion, which sits on 43 acres north of Towson, has been closed since February 2005. The farmhouse has remained open, but tours and programs have been scaled back. Still, on a recent December weekend, about 1,800 people visited the site, says Bill C. Dee, a volunteer guide since 1987.

"I think we've enjoyed using the farmhouse," he says, but adds that most folks come to the site to see the mansion's interior.

The mansion's closing has allowed staff to focus on the lives of the many workers, including slaves and tenant farmers, who worked on the property, says guide Joanna Reckseit.

But, Reckseit says, even with its "Second Sundays" programs and other features added by a new park ranger, such as carriage rides through the property and period re-enactors working in the fields, many school groups have stopped coming.

While there are other historic mansions in the area open to the public, Hampton is one of the few places that is furnished almost entirely with possessions used by the six generations of the Ridgely family who lived in the mansion, Reckseit and Dee say. "Most of the others are furnished with period pieces," says Reckseit.

Hampton's collection of furnishings and artwork is in storage, McGuire says.

The renovations are on schedule to be completed in the spring, and the mansion should reopen in October or November, McGuire says, adding that the staff is coming up with events to highlight the collection and renovations, such as a formal ball.

The country retreat for the Ridgely family became part of the National Park Service in 1948.

Before its closure, the mansion, constructed from 1783 to 1790, drew about 30,000 visitors annually. Because no admission is charged to the farmhouse, the park service hasn't tracked the visitors to the historic site since the mansion was closed, McGuire says.

Initially, the work was to be completed last year. But when the project was put out to bid, the proposals were over budget, McGuire says. Contractors who often take on government projects were busy with construction in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, he says. And, he says, few companies have experience with historic properties and with the geothermal design of the heating and cooling system that the park service wanted to install in the mansion.

The system uses wells in the ground to provide an even temperature, which reduces the humidity that causes the most damage to historic paintings, books and furnishings, McGuire says.

Experts at the National Park Service have completed the cutting of walls and ceilings, aided by a Baltimore-based architectural firm that specializes in historic structures. The park service staff will also finish the cosmetic work, which will include painting, says McGuire. The colors will be matched to those used when the mansion was built.

Reckesit, who has volunteered at the site since 1996, says she fell in love with the home after touring it with her fourth-grade class.

"It's a slice of history - local history and American history," Reckseit says. "As you walk through, you can almost feel what life was like back then."

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