Hampton Mansion reopens today

Upgrades made to safeguard home's historic furnishings

November 30, 2007|By Gina Davis | Gina Davis,Sun reporter

Visitors are likely to be awed by the opulent 18th- and 19th-century furnishings that fill the historic Hampton Mansion in Towson, which reopens this morning after being closed for nearly three years for a $3.3 million renovation.

But guests are not supposed to notice what the staff considers some of the building's most impressive upgrades.

About 100 fire sprinkler heads have been installed flush with the ceilings -- part of a fire-suppression system that is so sensitive people are not supposed to smoke even near the exterior doors.

To improve security and deter vandalism, low-voltage lighting has been installed along the home's perimeter. And an elaborate geothermal heat pump system was added to keep the 25,000-square-foot mansion -- and its vast collection of period furniture and artifacts -- cool in the summer and warm in the winter. The system also will help maintain relative humidity at artifact-friendly percentages in the low 40s.

"The collection is going to be a whole lot happier," said Greg McGuire, facility manager.

The heating and cooling system includes sensor-activated air handlers that draw excess heat away from rooms. The system converts the heat to liquid, which is cooled as it is pumped through underground pipes that hook up to 21 wells buried 350 feet deep. McGuire boasted of the system's nearly inaudible hum.

"The old system shook the building as it did its thing," he said. "This is a mild drone."

Designated a national historic site in 1948, Hampton Mansion was said to be the largest house in the United States when it was built in 1790. During the 19th century, the estate occupied 25,000 acres, stretching from Towson to White Marsh.

The mansion was situated on a 62-acre plantation and was home to seven generations of the Ridgely family, whose most well-known occupant was a Maryland governor, Charles Carnan Ridgely.

The plantation also was populated by hundreds of slaves owned by the family until 1829, when the governor died. As directed in his will, more than 300 slaves were freed, one of the state's largest manumissions, according to the National Park Service, which operates the site today.

Vince Vaise, chief ranger, said the renovation was a major undertaking that will help visitors better appreciate Hampton's historical significance.

Being able to walk through the mansion as well as the outbuildings, including two renovated, though sparse, slave quarters, visitors will be able to sense how the Ridgelys and their slaves lived.

"When you see the contrast, you don't even need words," he said.

Though preservationists generally bristle at modernizing historic sites, when the Hampton project was announced in 2004, local experts deemed the work necessary to protect the house. For one, the home didn't meet national fire protection standards, which made it especially vulnerable.

Gay Vietzke, superintendent of Hampton National Historic Site, said the renovation is "an extraordinary example of stewardship. Both in terms of the stewardship of historic resources and the preservation of the architecture and the museum collection. But also environmental stewardship, in that the systems we chose to put into the building are sustainable technology and exemplary of a green ethic that we are trying to promote as well."

Upgrades to the 217-year-old mansion were made according to "enormously detailed historic documentation" that includes millions of records on the Ridgely family, said Gregory Weidman, furnishings project coordinator for Historic Hampton Inc.

The Hampton Mansion is the only National Park Service site recognized for its architectural significance because it is considered the country's largest example of late Georgian architecture, a style characterized by five main rooms, according to park staff. At Hampton, those rooms are the great hall and four adjacent parlors.

In keeping with that history, the interior and exterior walls were repainted with "historically accurate" colors that were created with the aid of chemical analysis. Furniture fabrics were reproduced in England using archival photographs to ensure precise matches, Weidman said.

Preparations for today's reopening began in May, when the first of nearly 7,000 historical objects, including furnishings and photographs, were returned to the mansion. The move was completed in eight stages.

Yesterday, workers laid the last pieces of sod to the surrounding lawn, and park staff seemed giddy at the prospect of ushering in throngs of visitors.

"The story of the Hampton is the story of America," Vaise said. "Certain attitudes and certain ways of seeing things are filtered into the state and nation so much that you probably see things in a certain way because of things that happened in places like this years ago, and you're not even aware of it and don't even think about it."

gina.davis@baltsun.com

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