A gem from our past sits on Hopkins campus waiting to be discovered

October 02, 2007|By Lisa Simeone

On a green hill overlooking Charles Street, on the campus of the Johns Hopkins University, stands a red-brick and white-porticoed house that fairly sings. It is one of the best-preserved Federal-style houses in the country, a National Historic Landmark, a brilliant jewel in Baltimore's architectural diadem.

And hardly anybody who passes by knows what it is. Or even notices it.

No, it's not the Hopkins president's house. Nor is it part of the library, or a fancy dorm.

It is Homewood House, the historic home of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, the longest-surviving and only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence. Built between 1801 and 1806 as a wedding gift for Carroll's son, Charles Jr., Homewood is a stunner. From the elegant, perfectly symmetrical exterior to the delicate tracery on the fanlights, to the colorful, light-filled, surprisingly modern interior, it's a living embodiment of the principles of the Enlightenment.

And it's yours for six bucks. Even less if you're a senior citizen or a member of any number of organizations, such as AAA. In fact, it's free for Hopkins students, most of whom spend four years on campus without ever setting foot in the place. The price of a tour of the house is less than the cost of a movie, most museums or admission to historic sites such Fallingwater, Monticello, Mount Vernon or Winterthur.

So why haven't you seen it?

Could it be because you, like preservation architect Alan Neumann, think historic houses are "boring"? In the same article in which Mr. Neumann was quoted, The New York Times reported that historic houses around the country are suffering - from lack of interest and endowment money. Even some of the most prestigious and once-desired destinations, such as Williamsburg and Winterthur, are feeling the pinch.

I don't find Homewood House boring. I feel a little thrill every time I pass the sweeping white marble steps that lead up to the front entrance. I get chills when I walk into the Reception Room. I smile wickedly every time I look at the shiny silver traveling bidet that once belonged to Betsy Patterson Bonaparte, the Jennifer Lopez of her day. I imagine what it was like to sashay through the rooms of this house, eating elaborate meals in the dining room, waltzing at parties with the likes of Ben Franklin and who knows which other luminaries of our early republic. I marvel at the political and philosophical ideas that must have been bouncing off each other like light off the gilded pier mirrors.

As The New York Times article noted, historic houses aren't valued as they once were. And this spells danger. If people don't bother to visit these houses, if they don't even notice them right in their own backyard, how will historic houses survive? This is about more than just preserving pretty furnishings - although the case for the importance of aesthetics in our lives is a powerful one. This is about preserving our history, understanding how we got here, what our ancestors believed, what principles they espoused and why.

Homewood House has been sitting on that hill for more than 200 years. It doesn't command the view of the harbor it once did - sorry about that, development got in the way - but it's just as beautiful and breathtaking as ever. And it just celebrated its 20th anniversary as a house museum. Why not take one hour out of your life to go see it?

Lisa Simeone, a radio journalist, is a volunteer docent at Homewood House.

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