A few minutes off the Baltimore Beltway, a grand estate beckons with stories of lavish parties, elegant lifestyles, and a lot of hard work done by slaves and, later, tenant farmers.
Hampton Mansion, a National Historic Site operated by the National Park Service, is a gem of a place. It’s got something for practically everyone: original architecture; interior decoration from three centuries; gardens filled with flowers and ancient trees; old farm buildings including a dairy; stone quarters that serve as the backdrop for a regular program on slavery and wide broad fields that beckon you to sit a spell or if you are younger and more active to run and run and run. (That’s what my kids liked best when we visited here in an earlier time.)
The Ridgely family owned the property from 1790 into the 20th century. The house is filled with color. An assortment of furnishings throughout the first and second floors actually belonged to the family. And there are plenty of made-you-look items, including a harp that also appears in a portrait, lavish window treatments, and faux painting from the main hall to the slave quarters.
Did I mention all this is free?
Stop in the brand new visitor center to get oriented, decide what you want to see and find out what programs are on the schedule for the day you visit. There’s a small gift shop, too.
We had a chance to walk the farm’s grounds before we took a tour of the house. The farm is designed to look like a little village when viewed from the mansion. With its sturdy stone buildings trimmed in red — in a style known as ferm ornee — and the farm house, it is charming. The dairy is still kept cool by a stream that runs through it. The clapboard farm house sits at the center of this village.
The house tour, which includes the public rooms of the first floor and some grand bedrooms on the second, takes nearly an hour. It’s a good introduction to life in Baltimore County when the country was young, as well as an introduction to the Ridgely family, who made their fortune in agriculture and ironworks. Charles Carnan Ridgely was Maryland’s 15th governor. An avid horse-racing fan, he was the owner of some of the finest thoroughbreds in America, and helped make Maryland a center of horse racing in the 19th century.
I stopped by for a couple of hours of wandering on a beautiful spring day. I could easily have spent most of a day. With a few kids, a dog on a leash, a picnic and a blanket, what a wonderful way to get away — without much of a detour off the Beltway.
© Text and photos Mary K. Tilghman