The two-story, white-painted mahogany portico that is now the main entrance to the late Elizabeth C. "Nancy" Smith's beloved 19th-century mansion evokes a time long past, although it is newly, and painstakingly, restored.
"It almost re-creates the old photos," Howard County park planner Clara Gouin said, imagining the woman who lived there all her life and the house as she knew it as a young woman before World War II, living on what was then a remote farm in pastoral Howard County.
That's exactly the effect National Park Service exhibits specialist Brandon Gordon, 29, and his co-workers wanted as they completed three years of work on the outside of the brick house destined to become the centerpiece of 300-acre Blandair Park in east Columbia.
"It looks wonderful. It's nice to re-create something that has been missing for a very long time," Gordon said, as he sat under a tree in the steamy heat reviewing all the technical aspects of the work, which was paid for by state and local bond money.
The house, originally built in 1854 and enlarged in 1937 when modern plumbing and electricity were added by Smith's father, now has a new roof, repointed bricks, restored windows and frames, shutters and the $208,000 portico, which was completely gone and had to be rebuilt after excavations to find and replace its foundation.
Gordon, who was hired by the county to oversee the restoration, said mahogany was used instead of the original yellow pine, because mahogany is rot- and disease-resistant. He told Gouin, county Recreation and Parks Director Gary Arthur and Al White, a county maintenance supervisor, that he used the best, longest-lasting paint, installed drainage systems for rainwater and took other steps that should help keep the house stable for decades.
For example, the hollow wood columns that support the portico have small spaces at their base that allow air inside and prevent mildew, and unseen screens to keep out insects as much as possible.
It will still be a while, though, before the public will be able to use the house or its outbuildings.
Arthur said work on the first stage of the $37 million park development will begin on the south side of Route 175 in early 2010 - a full dozen years after the county, using state open space funds, bought the land from Smith's estate after her death. Legal battles over its use and funding have delayed the project.
In that first stage, which will cost $2.6 million, roads and athletic fields will be built south of Route 175. When that is complete, the county must provide a vehicle bridge over the state highway to the park's larger northern side, to allow safe access to the mansion. Now the access is via an unpaved driveway off Route 175, which splits the property.
Until the new road is built, barbed-wire fence will remain and the long black shutters on the house will be kept closed when workers aren't there, to minimize chances for vandalism. The county has a caretaker living on the property, too, in a small travel trailer parked near the house.
Arthur said National Park Service staff are drawing up plans to repair the house's interior, which still has peeling wallpaper, missing plaster, loose boards, debris and a huge Baltimore-manufactured William Knabe and Co. rectangular piano on the third floor.
The problem, as always, is money. After spending $1.2 million, Arthur said only about $300,000 of the restoration budget is left, not enough to replace the wiring and plumbing and provide heating and cooling, much less restoring the walls and interior. Arthur said the county might be able to restore only one room to its original state, to show people what the house once looked like.
"We're going to have to pick and choose our priorities," Arthur said, as the group walked through the house recently on a final inspection tour with Gordon.
"It does look good. It looks sharp," Gordon said, admiring the portico that took parts of two years to restore. "There was a lot of work underground you can't even see," he said.
"It's a great job. A great job," Arthur said. "It's beautiful," White added.
"It almost seems like you could see her [Smith] standing there," Gouin said.