Under clear skies on a chilly day recently, workers scaled scaffolding to pound nails into the frame of a two-story entrance porch at the 19th-century Blandair mansion.
The task was among the last before the carpenters ceased their efforts for the winter. But after three years of work during the warm months by National Park Service preservation crews, the exterior of the stately house on a 300-acre estate in Columbia looks vastly different than it did in early 2006. Weathered, worn plywood covered many windows, the deteriorated roof leaked onto rotted support beams and the main entrance was a jury-rigged set of wooden steps in 2006.
Now the former home of the late Elizabeth C. "Nancy" Smith boasts a new green metal roof, re-pointed brick walls and brightly painted restored wooden windows made with historically authentic glass. A photograph from Smith's youth is being used as a guide, said Clara Gouin, project manager for the county's Department of Recreation and Parks. By next summer, the restoration is expected to be complete.
"We're redoing it to 1930s standards," Gouin said. "When it's all said and done, it will hark back to the picture."
Most of the refinished materials were salvaged from the house, said Brandon Gordon, an exhibits specialist with the National Park Service.
Gordon and carpenters Chuck Anderson and Mike Owens finished the framing for the restored portico recently and brought the outdoor work to an end for the winter. They'll take the job to the workshop at the park service's Historic Preservation Training Center in Frederick, where they will mill the intricate wooden decorative parts for the finished structure.
The craftsmen will manufacture cutting blades to re-create some of the decorative wooden pieces of the portico. The final pieces of mahogany for the $208,000 porch restoration will be installed next spring and summer, Gordon said.
The goal is to restore the house's exterior to what it looked like after a 1937 modernization done by Smith's father that added electricity and indoor plumbing. The house was built in the late 1850s. Resentful of the suburbanization all around her, Smith kept to herself and died in 1997. With the help of state funding, the county government bought the land the next year, but progress on park planning was delayed for several years by a legal dispute over ownership.
When the $1.8 million restoration is complete, the house will be the centerpiece of a planned $37 million regional park on both sides of Route 175 in east Columbia.
But that day is years away.
With the slumping economy squeezing public revenue across the nation, it's not clear when the county will be able to afford the full park development. Preliminary plans call for $4 million to be spent next fiscal year.
County officials recently approved a master plan for the portion of the park south of Route 175, including a vehicle overpass spanning the roadway that would connect the two areas. The mansion is in the park's northern section, accessible only via a long, stone-and-gravel driveway off the state highway.
Until the overpass is built and improved roads and parking are installed near the mansion, it won't be suitable for heavy use by the public, Gouin said. The county also must decide what the interior renovation will include, beyond the obvious basics, she said.
"Everything has to be upgraded," Gouin said, including the heating, plumbing and wiring. Air conditioning also must be added.
The interior is in "pretty solid condition," she said, though wallpaper is peeling, dust is everywhere and rotted roof beams show through in several openings in the 14-foot ceilings.
The mansion's restoration has made slow but steady progress since work began in 2006.
When the rest of the window shutters go up, the metal scaffolding comes down and the entry porch is completed next summer, the outside of the three-story house will be done.
Gordon, a six-year veteran of the park service's restoration program, said he relishes learning and using the methods of a bygone age.
"Skills from 50 years ago were much greater than they are today," said Gordon, 28, of Frederick. The aura of history that prevails at many work sites holds plenty of appeal, but so do the rare design quirks used by craftsmen of the era, he said. That's why Gordon enjoys restoring historic structures.
In contrast, mass-production construction techniques used on today's homes involve premade synthetic parts that are often manufactured in factories, and stapled or nailed with power tools. Speed and cutting costs are the top objectives.
At Blandair, a second-floor window in the north hallway allows easy access to the new portico roof via "jib doors." The large window is raised, and the wood wall beneath it opens into two small doors that fold back to create an exit.
All of the second-floor windows on the building's south side have jib doors that once opened to a 19th-century "sleeping" porch used on hot summer nights. That porch is not being restored, however, because it predated the 1937 renovation.
One of the biggest tasks while working on the Blandair portico was moving the granite foundation after excavating the spot where the original structure sat.
"It's challenging to get everything just where it was," Gordon said. "Everything you see here was gone. There was just a hole."
BLANDAIR MANSION AT A GLANCE
Built in 1858
Replaced an 18th-century house
Named for Theodore Bland, who built it
Bought and renovated by the Smith family in 1937
Bought by Howard County for $11 million in 1998
Renovation cost: $1.8 million
Amount spent to date: $1 million
Work began in spring 2006