TOWSON – Looking up a sloping, green hill from the edge of the road, the pale-pink stucco Hampton Mansion inspires awe.
It is a grand and romantic Georgian work of art, the perfectly symmetrical crown jewel of what used to be a self- sufficient city of sorts. At one time, it was 25,000 acres of agriculture, industry and trade.
Today, with the hum of beltway traffic interrupting the stillness of its quiet pastoral setting, it is a 60-acre shadow of its former self. Yet the Hampton Estate is still humbling.
At the bottom of the hill, however, life was not so idyllic.
The two slave quarters that are still standing are wood-and- stone duplexes that housed one family on each side. There is one room with a fireplace and a window on the first floor of each home. Black burn marks from candles cover the walls.
A rickety makeshift ladder cuts through a square hole in the ceiling to go upstairs, where swarms of bees have taken over. Even on a cool spring day, the former slave quarters are humid and hot. There is very little light and there are no porches.
“There was a real contrast between the people looking up at the hill at the big house and the Ridgelys living in the big house,” said curator Lynne Hastings.
But Hastings said it is the squalor of the slave quarters, combined with the grandeur of the big house, that combine to make Hampton Mansion a historical treasure trove.
“Rather than just one big fancy house, it is a cohesive unit of original buildings and archives that tell this great story. It’s an overview of 200 years of American history,” she said.
That history begins in 1745, when Col. Charles Ridgely bought 1,500 acres of land known as Northhampton.
The property had all the ingredients for iron-making. During the Revolutionary War, Ridgely, who sympathized with the patriots, made cannons, cannon balls and other goods for the rebellious colonists.
In 1783, Ridgely began building his mansion atop a hill overlooking the property. He lived there only a short time before his death in 1790, by which time his holdings had expanded to 12,000 acres.
Because the Ridgelys were childless, the mansion passed to a nephew on the condition that he take Ridgely as his last name.
Not only did Charles Carnan Ridgely take his uncle’s name and lands, he apparently inherited his aptitude for business, eventually increasing the size of Hampton to 25,000 acres. The “Second Master” Ridgely was also successful in politics, becoming Maryland’s governor in 1815.
Kent Lancaster, a retired Goucher College history professor, said the governor built the family’s wealth and the following generations “enjoyed spending it.”
The family made its fortune on agriculture, ironworks, quarries, horse breeding, real estate, shipping, mills and commerce. And under the governor, Hampton was at its busiest.
“It wasn’t at all like a very quiet house on a hill like what people come to see now,” said Hastings.
“There were mills, quarries, orchards, animals, chickens, sheep, craft shops, carpenters, weavers, cobblers; people could get all sorts of stuff here,” she said. “Everything came from the estate itself.”
It was more than a plantation in its 19th-century heyday, when it was the largest house in Maryland.
“We usually don’t call it a plantation,” said Jenny Masur, a National Park Service ranger at Hampton.
Plantation implies one crop, she said. And the Hampton estate was more than that.
While Lancaster said later generations spent freely, he also said they never threw anything away and kept meticulous records – – down to the pennies spent on hair ribbon and the shoe sizes of some slaves.
It is those records that have provided such a rich history of the family and the estate.
In addition to its extensive records, the family left more than 45,000 objects, like furniture, toys and artwork and 5,000 photographs. Hastings is using those photographs to reconstruct exhibit rooms instead of relying on guesswork.
When one of the children noted in a diary that she liked to have tea with her dolls every day, it led caretakers to furnish a nursery with dolls around a small table for tea.
A parlor in the 33-room home is cluttered today with family memorabilia and a music room holds instruments the Ridgelys played. Artwork covers the walls and elaborate painted Baltimore chairs and sofas decorate the drawing room.
Gilded window boxes with the Ridgely crest hang in the drawing room and an original chandelier, now wired for electric lights, hangs in the sitting room.
Family furniture fills the master bedroom, where three generations of Ridgelys carved their initials on a cracked window pane on their wedding nights.
Later generations of Ridgelys struggled to keep the property and the aristocratic lifestyle that went with it, which became particularly difficult after emancipation.
The family turned to other crops, ran a dairy operation for nearby schools and eventually began selling off land for new neighborhoods.
The family sold the mansion in 1947 to the Avalon Foundation, a Mellon family trust, that presented it to the Department of the Interior. The next year, Hampton was designated a historic site and opened to the public in 1949.
The last Master Ridgely — Sixth Master John Ridgely Jr. — lived until his death in a farmhouse on the property after the mansion was sold. When his second wife, Jane Rodney Ridgely, died in 1978, the rest of the property was turned over to the National Park Service.
The park service now controls the estate, which is open daily to the public, but work continues on the impressive property.
The farmhouse is getting an interior face-lift and other rooms in the mansion, not yet open to the public, are slated to be renovated as money becomes available.
Both the cupola and the mansion have new roofs in their original style. The state has approved funding to restore the dining room, while volunteers work every day on smaller projects like painting fences and weeding the gardens.
“Hampton has so much to offer statewide,” said Hastings. “It’s over 200 years of one family’s rise and fall.”