By Alex Ziolkowski
Two weekends ago, on Saturday, October 17 and Sunday, 18, 2015 tourists roamed the grandeur and opulence of Hampton National Historic Site. On cloudless, breezy, mild, fall days they were absorbed by the serenity and beauty that encompasses Hampton National Historic Site.
Hampton is a remnant of American history intertwined with an outstanding legacy of one of America’s earliest prominent families. For 200 years, Hampton Mansion, was the Ridgely’s country-side escape, but the vacation spot was a front for their various entrepreneurial enterprises.
“Hampton reflects the United States we live in today”, said Ranger Vince Vaise. “Visiting Hampton allows us to understand the present.”
Ranger Vince Vaise began his stint with the National Park Service as a volunteer at Fort McHenry. Vaise found it fulfilling and trained to become a seasonal ranger. He eventually transitioned to being a full-time Park Ranger.
“Hampton had many landlords,” said Ranger Vaise
In 1695, Lord Baltimore gave his cousin Darnell, North Hampton. In 1745, Colonel Charles Ridgely bought 1,500 acres of North Hampton from Darnell’s daughter, Ann Hill; he later purchased another 11,000 acres.
In 1760, Charles Ridgely Jr. inherited North Hampton. Charles Jr. his brother John Ridgely and their father Col. Charles Ridgely established an iron mill at Gunpowder River. The iron mill introduced servitude to the Ridgely estate.
Hampton Mansion was built in seven years, and christened Hampton Hall. Under Captain Charles Ridgely’s supervision construction began in 1783 and completed in 1790. Because of Hampton Hall, Capt. Charles, was nicknamed the “Builder”. The Builder died a patriot sympathizer; supplying colonial armies with: weapons,grains, tools and other implements.
In 1948, Hampton Mansion was declared a national historic site through David Finley Mellon. Mellon visited Hampton Mansion in 1944 to buy art; instead he returned after creating the Mellon Foundation; which is dedicated to preserving Hampton Mansion.
The last Ridgely continued to live on the estate, but in a lower house near the mansion until 1978. In 1979, the National Park Service obtained the reins to resurrect the mansion and the immediate 60 acres surrounding it.
Hampton houses the rise and fall of a culture that still influences us today. The Ridgelys attempted to remain relevant until history caught up with them, and their lifestyle became obsolete. Hampton’s architecture would stand the test of time.
Hampton followed the principles of Georgian Architecture. The mansion’s aesthetic provides balance through symmetry. Hampton’s design personified its place in American history; mirroring the past and present.
The gardens and greenhouses are still being excavated. The Great Terrace, the backyard just behind the mansion. Just below a hill the Parterres or gardens are lye behind the Great Terrace. The Ridgelys grew exotic plants in their greenhouses and transferred them to the Parterres.
The Orangery, Greenhouses, Ice House and original Entrance Gates are west of Hampton Mansion. A mound of grass and dirt, a bared-gate and a stair case illustrate the Ice House. The Entrance Gates reminded me of Disney’s movie the Haunted Mansion; an eerie first impression.
For 100 years the Ridgelys indentured servants and slaves resided in the Workers’ Quarters. “Domestic” indentured servants and slaves, people working in the mansion not the fields, lived in bungalows behind the mansion.
East of Hampton are the: Storage shed, Privies, Garage, Smokehouse and Pump-house. The Orchards and Family Cemetery are southeast and down a dirt road behind the mansion. They stored their carriages and cars in the Garage.
The Ridgelys: Stables, Mule Barn, Dairy Shed and Dove Coats are north of Hampton. The mules assisted servants and slaves till crops. Dove coats housed birds until eaten. The Dairy Shed became a valuable source of income after the 1800’s. The Stables were revered for their thoroughbred race horses.
Capt. Charles lived in the Lower House or Farm House before the mansion was completed, and his descendant, John Ridgely Jr., returned to the Farm House after Hampton was handed to the National Park Service; intersecting the past and present.
The rest of the Ridgelys were fortunate enough to call Hampton home. The childless Builder and his wife, Nancy, adopted their four nephews. Their nephews could inherit the estate if they took Ridgely as their legal surname.
Family tradition decreed that the eldest brother inherits the most property. Charles Ridgely Carnan, 1760-1829, received 25,000 acres; his three brothers split the remains. Carnan served three terms as governor of Maryland and freed most of his 350 plus slaves.
John Carnan Ridgely married Eliza Eichelberger Ridgely. No incest was involved. John assumed 4,500 acres and no slaves. Eichelberger had an affinity for botany tending to the gardens and greenhouses. She traveled around the world for two years, and returned to renovate the Drawing Room.
“Aunt” Margret started a girl’s school in Liberia, perhaps to atone the Ridgelys of their century of enslaved labor. Nancy Brown Davis was the only slave buried in the family cemetery. She stayed with the family despite the Emancipation Proclamation. Contrary to the Ridgely’s affection, another slave named Charles Brown escaped on Christmas but was later captured and sold South.
“Documentation specific to certain rooms, tells Hampton’s story”, said Ranger Vaise. “Rooms became associated with people and vice versa.”
Certain Ridgelys became associated with specific rooms. Historians, archeologists and Hampton’s various caretakers revealed its secrets
“It started several years ago with the Society of American Antiquities, said Ranger Vaise. “Now the Preservation of Maryland.”
The Mansion Office resembled the Ridgelys lifestyle during the 1930’s. The Ridgelys conducted all of their fiscal enterprises in the modestly decorated room. It was also their laundry room for some time.A Ridgely could be comforted by the symphonies across the hall.
The Ridely children learned to play instruments, relaxed and studied in the Music Room, fondly dubbed the “Library”. Eichelberger’s harp once abelonged to the French royal family is the centerpiece of the room. It was her 15th birthday gift. A portrait of Eichelberger leaning on the Harp is mounted in the Great Hall.
The Great Hall was the “Soul of the Mansion” hence being originally called Hampton Hall. Weddings or funerals for Ridgelys, slaves and servants, parties and lavished dinners occurred in the Great Hall. The room is decorated with various oriental ceramics, large mirrors and family portraits. The entire room is white with massive crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. The room remained generally the same for 200 years.
Their Parlor flaunted 1800’s interior design. It included portraits of the Builder and Nancy. The walls are covered with yellow wallpaper incorporating green floral designs that is complimented by matching patterned carpet and drapes. They lounged on blue and white striped sofas and chairs in between maple furniture.
The wallpaper came in squares and had to be pasted on a wall in specific way. The task was tedious and delicate but you can’t notice the seams unless you are standing six inches from a portion of the wall.
The Ridgely Dining Room is parallel to the Parlor. The Parlor and Dining Room swapped functions multiple times. The walls are turquoise with a yellow trim accompanied by matching drapes and patterned carpet. The lower half of the walls depict a “Parisian City”.
After further research they confirmed the city should be Italian. It was very popular among Baltimore’s elite to have rooms with wallpaper inspired by European landmarks. The Ridgely’s had different sets of dishes, silverware and table cloth for each meal. All utensils, glassware and plates were graved with their coat of arms.
“The Ridgelys borrowed their coat of arms from another Ridgely family, still living in England”, said Ranger Vaise. “The Maryland State Legislature allowed the Ridgelys to adopt it.”
The Kitchen like the Mansion Office is a bare room with cooking essentials. Bells hanging outside of the kitchen were designated to specific rooms in the mansion. Chefs and servers became so attune that they could tell which bell rang by its distinct jingle.
The Drawing Room was decorated with floral wallpaper, white gold trimmed walls and patterned carpet. Eliza Ridgely was inspired by her two year vacation traveling the world. She returned with many souvenirs. There are two different styles of furniture in the room: Empire and Rocco; which were renovated to mimic popular painted Baltimore furniture.
The Nursery sports a baby blue theme and a floral trim. The children’s rooms were actually on the third floor but there is no public access. The furniture and carpet was of the 1860’s. The room was heated with a cast iron stove from the cellar.
The Guest Room is plain white with patterned carpet and has large, red, velvet, leisurely, furniture. A portrait of Aunt Margret hangs above the fireplace. Margret was suspicious of electricity, she feared it would burn the mansion down. The Ridgelys didn’t have electricity until the 1920’s.
The Master Bedroom depicts 1790’s-1800’s interior design. The family bed had to be brought in pieces then assembled in the bedroom. There are few bathrooms throughout the mansion. For the longest time each bedroom was fitted with chamber pots; indoor plumbing wasn’t introduced until the 1850’s.
“A window into America’s past”, said Ranger Vaise. “It allows us to explore the history of the entire country.”
Hampton National Historic Site is a time capsule, a fragment of America’s genealogy focused through the legacy of the Ridgelys. The mansion is a double helix and its inhabitants are the chromosomes. Like chromosomes the Ridgely’s belongings are records of history. For the past 70 years dedicated individuals and organizations have devoted themselves to decoding Hampton’s secrets.