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Hampton Mansion awaits rediscovery

  • Story Highlights
  • Hampton Mansion is a fine example of Georgian architecture
  • The mansion reopened to the public in November after a three-year restoration
  • It's one of just a handful of plantation homes with extant slave quarters
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TOWSON, Maryland (AP) -- Hampton Mansion has plenty of historical and architectural significance. All it needs is a higher profile.

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Hampton Mansion was the largest private home in the U.S. when it was completed in 1790.

The mansion, maintained by the National Park Service, is considered one of the finest examples of Georgian architecture in the country. It's one of just a handful of plantation homes with extant slave quarters. With 25,000 square feet of living space, it was the largest private home in the U.S. when it was completed in 1790.

Hampton sits on 63 acres just outside the Baltimore Beltway, less than a mile from the heart of Towson, a bustling suburb directly north of the city. And yet many area residents don't know the first thing about it.

"You say 'National Park Service' in Baltimore and you immediately think of Fort McHenry," said Rhoda Dorsey, president emeritus of Historic Hampton Inc., a nonprofit that supports the site. "You don't think of anything else."

Hampton, which reopened to the public in November after a three-year restoration, is an odd fit among the Park Service's 392 properties. With its bold stucco exterior and dramatic cupola, it's the only national park designated for its architectural significance.

The Ridgely family, which lived at Hampton for seven generations, also bears some responsibility for the mansion's present-day obscurity. The Ridgelys simply aren't prominent enough to poach history buffs from neighboring Virginia -- home to George Washington's Mount Vernon, Thomas Jefferson's Monticello and James Madison's Montpelier.

While they had social relationships with presidents -- Theodore Roosevelt's wife, Edith, was a guest at Hampton in 1902 -- the Ridgelys enjoyed the pinnacle of their political influence from 1816-1819. That's when Charles Carnan Ridgely, the second master of Hampton, was appointed to three one-year terms as Maryland governor.

If you go ...

Hampton Mansion: 535 Hampton Lane, Towson, Md.; http://www.nps.gov/hamp or http://www.historichampton.org or 410-823-1309. Winter hours: Wednesday-Sunday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Mansion tours at 10 a.m., 11 a.m., 1 p.m., 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. (Friday to Sunday, also a 2 p.m. tour, Friday to Sunday).

"The Ridgelys weren't as famous," said Vince Vaise, the mansion's historical interpreter. "But that can make the story more valuable."

That's because many of the economic and social forces that shaped Maryland can be seen on the grounds of Hampton -- including the odd history of slavery in the state.

While Maryland was part of the Union during the Civil War, it's south of the Mason-Dixon line. It remained a slave state, not embracing emancipation until November 1864 -- nearly two years after Abraham Lincoln delivered the Emancipation Proclamation.

When he died in 1829, Charles Carnan Ridgely freed more than 300 slaves in his will. But his son, John Carnan Ridgely, bought about 60 slaves and freed only one. Several dozen people were enslaved at Hampton when emancipation finally came to Maryland. Many stayed on as paid servants.

Down the hill from the mansion's dramatic front lawn sits a 1745 farmhouse where the Ridgelys lived while Hampton was under construction. And next to the farmhouse are three buildings where slaves lived, including two built from stone -- a rarity for slave quarters. Most were built of wood and didn't survive.

That doesn't mean the Ridgelys wanted their slaves to have nicer accommodations; the family owned a quarry. And on the walls of the largest cabin, the park service has posted copies of newspaper ads offering rewards for the return of runaway slaves, including one from Charles Carnan Ridgely seeking "a light colored Negro called Henry Jones."

The contrast between the bleak slave quarters, with its bare floors, fireplace and a piece or two of furniture, and the mansion's beautifully appointed interior could not be more stark. While the slave quarters were open during the mansion's renovation, both are now open to visitors simultaneously for the first time.

"When you go through the slave cabin and you come into this room," Vaise said as he stood in one of Hampton's opulent drawing rooms, "the contrast is there. You don't even need words for that."

The drawing rooms and four second-story bedrooms have been decorated to reflect different periods in the Ridgelys' stewardship of Hampton, which lasted from 1790 to 1948, when the park service acquired the home.

During the restoration, the entire building was emptied for the first time since the Ridgelys moved in -- meaning 7,000 museum objects were removed, catalogued and stored.

In the great hall -- where the Ridgelys at various times held weddings, formal dinners and snowball fights -- hangs a copy of a bewitching 1818 portrait of Eliza Ridgely by Thomas Sully called "Lady with a Harp."

The original painting belongs to the National Gallery of Art. David Finley, the national gallery's director at the time, acquired it in 1945, and he became an influential advocate for Hampton's preservation. He helped broker a deal for the Ridgelys to sell the mansion to the Avalon Foundation, which donated it to the National Park Service in 1948.

By the 20th century, the Ridgelys were having trouble paying for the upkeep of the mansion, a relic of a slave-based economy.

Things were different in the mid-18th century, when the Ridgelys started buying up tracts of land in the rolling hills north of Baltimore. Several had names like "Northampton" and "Oakhampton" from the previous owners' English ties -- the source of the mansion's name.

The family made its fortune producing iron, and in the early 19th century the estate encompassed 25,000 acres. They extracted impure ore known as bog iron from the woodlands, a process that required "massive deforestation," Vaise said.

The family got out of the iron business in the 1820s, but still had a huge farming operation. By the late 19th century, the Ridgelys began selling off land to make ends meet. Now, Hampton is surrounded by suburbia. A gravel road that leads from the mansion to the stables abuts the backyards of tract houses.

But from many vantage points, the mansion appears untouched by time.

"When you're on that front porch and you look down toward the farm property, or conversely when you're on the farm property and looking back up to the big house, none of the rest shows," Dorsey said. "You'd think you were still in the midst of an enormous agricultural empire." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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