`Prime time' plans for Rockfield Manor

Bel Air and foundation officials discuss expanding the historic house and attracting larger gatherings

April 01, 2007|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,[Sun Reporter]

A central location, landscaped lawns and a gracious stone residence have made Rockfield Manor in Bel Air a popular venue for weddings, festivals, reunions and holiday get-togethers.

The events, nearly all on weekends, bring in about $100,000 annually and allow the town-owned property, managed by the Rockfield Foundation, to pay expenses. But supporters want to expand the 1921 home to accommodate the growing community it serves.

"I would love to see an addition to enhance this property," said James Hamilton Jr., president of the nonprofit foundation. "We are operating in the black, but we need an addition and more marketing to attract larger groups."

About 40 people who crowded into the parlor, the manor's largest room, for a "visioning session" last week illustrated the home's drawbacks. They sat shoulder-to-shoulder on narrow folding chairs with barely enough space to raise a hand.

"We are really up against it," Hamilton said. "This is a house, not an entertainment facility."

After a 30-minute presentation, the crowd dispersed into smaller discussion groups throughout the two-story home.

"We would like to maintain the historic aspects but provide for larger gatherings," Carol L. Deibel, the town planning and community development director, told the group. "We would like all your ideas to make this an even better facility than it is now and one that is used daily."

The town, which has owned the home for 10 years, and the foundation could create a partnership to finance the expansion, but first officials insist on a feasibility study, a market strategy and a master plan for the property, which sits on 5 acres overlooking Churchville Road.

"We should be ready for prime time in Bel Air," said Mayor Terry Hanley. "This place is underutilized. A $500,000 addition could really open its doors and fill many needs."

Built 86 years ago for Charles and Adele McComas at a cost of $42,000, Rockfield Manor, named for its imposing stone facade, was among the most expensive houses of its time. Its design reflects influences of Frank Lloyd Wright and the Prairie School of Architecture.

"The building's charms are also its constraints," Deibel said. "This was broken into small rooms and built for a family."

The county purchased the property, then 55 acres, in 1991 from its residents and two years later deeded the land to the town for Rockfield Park, a community park that has gardens, trails, a playground and recreation fields.

In 1996, the town purchased the home and the surrounding 5 acres. Bel Air and the foundation have maintained and upgraded the property, including adding a parking lot to the back of the house.

Deibel offered aerial views that show the way residential development is encroaching on the park.

"Rockfield is an oasis surrounded by development," she said. "It is so important for us to save it and use it to the best of our abilities."

The manor schedules about 30 weddings a year, charging as much as $1,500. It also makes the grounds and a restored barn and tents available for outdoor events.

Bel Air's first wine festival, held at the manor last fall, will return this year. A pottery sale will be held from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. today at the manor, and an Easter egg hunt is set for 1 p.m. Saturday.

"We are booked weekends with weddings and a lot of family-friendly events," said Jane Pessagno, site manager. "This is a great place for fundraisers and meetings."

The manor must also develop programs to attract crowds during the week for book clubs, preschool programs and art classes, Deibel said. It also needs a redesign to make access easier and a commercial kitchen.

"We can tie in the exterior with its trails and playground," she said. "We must set long-term economic goals."

Bel Air has the population to support the expansion, Hanley said.

"With an addition, this spot could be a desirable venue that fills many needs," he said.

As they begin a master plan for Rockfield Manor, town officials and foundation members will review ideas that stemmed from the discussion.

"The master plan will lead to our next steps," Deibel said.

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

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