Location: Towson, Maryland
Webpage: National Park
General Description: Hampton National Historic Site preserves the mansion and grounds belonging to six generations of the Ridgely family, a prominent and wealthy family in Maryland. Purchased in 1745 by Col. Charles Ridgely, a tabacco farmer and trader. By the 1750s Hampton was expanded by his son Capt to over 10,000 acres where the main business was an ironworks furnace with the land, farms, and workers to support the ironworks. His son Capt Charles Ridgely expanded the family business to include grist mills, orchards, and stone quarries. During the Revolutionary War they made a fortune supplying cannon and ammunition to the Continental Army. In 1783, he started the construction of a mansion that would reflect his status and when completed in 1790 it was the largest private home in the United States. Unfortunately, Capt Ridgely died the same year without an heir and the property passed on to his nephew Charles Carnan under the stipulation that he changes his name to Ridgely. Under Charles Carnan Ridgely, the family fortune reached its peaks of over 25,000 acres in the 1820s. More than 300 slaves worked the fields, grounds, and mansion making it one of the largest slaveholding estates in Maryland. He expanded the operations to include corn, cattle, dairy, hogs and horses along with enterprises in coal mining, marble quarries, ironworks, mills, and mercantile. He also began raising Thoroughbred Racing Horses and install a race track on the property. Serving as Maryland governor from 1816-1819, the Mansion continued to entertain noteworthy guests of the time. When Gov Ridgely died in 1829 he freed all of his slaves over the age of 18. While this would appear to be a magnanimous gesture, it cam with a mixed blessing since the children continued to be slaves. The estate was split between his heirs, with John Carnan Ridgely inheriting the mansion and 4,500 acres. This was not sufficient land to maintain the ironworks, which was becoming marginal, and it was closed. John’s wife, Eliza, continued to entertain in the mansion purchasing many expensive artworks and furnishings for the mansion and greatly expanded the gardens and greenhouses. By the mid-19th century they owned the most extensive collections of citrus trees and exotics from around the world which were moved to their heated orangery during the winter. At the beginning of the Civil War, John’s son, Charles Ridgely, formed the Baltimore County Horse Guards, a pre-Confederate militia that served in Virginia during the war. Fortunately, Maryland was a border state and was not allowed to join the Confederacy, which meant that Hampton and other estates in Maryland remained untouched by the war. However, with the emancipation of the slaves, the fortunes of the family began to decline. The mansion passed on to Charles’ son in 1872 by Captain John Ridgely who had little interest in maintaining the estate, leaving it all to his wife who operated a dairy and sold cider. By this point the family could no longer financially maintain the property and in 1929, Capt John and his son, John Ridgely, Jr. formed the Hampton Development Company and sold off much of the property. The Hampton Mansion remained in the family until 1948 when John Ridgely, Jr. moved to the smaller Farm House on the property and the Mansion was acquired by the Avalon Foundation who preserved the mansion and its priceless furnishings. Today the Hampton Mansion and 43 acres make up the Hampton National Historic Site, which opened in 1949. Along with the mansion are reproductions of the gardens, original slave quarters, dairy, mule barn, grainery, and and the smaller Farm House which began as the Ridgely home while the mansion was built, then the home of the overseers over the years, and finally the home of John Ridgely Jr until his death.
1) The Visitor Center is a new building set off the hill from the mansion. While we were there, it was so new that they had yet to open the theater, so there was no movie. There are also only a few exhibits to view, so its only purpose is to direct visitors to the mansion where you can sign up for one of the tours of the mansion.
2) The Hampton Mansion was the largest private residence at its time and it is still an impressive structure. It is probably the best example of the Georgian style of architecture, which means complete symmetry. The two wings are almost exactly alike and the front and back are identical.
3) It is fortunate that they were able to keep all the furnishings in the mansion since it adds a lot of grandeur to the tour. Ownership does span six generations, so there were changes in the home and furnishings over time. They have done a very good job furnishing each room according to a different time period. For instance the parlor is set up for the original owner Col. Charles Ridgely, the dining room laid out for a formal dinner of Governor Charles Carnan Ridgely, and the bedrooms upstairs for each of the later generations. The grandeur of the dining room was especially stunning, as it was meant to impress the guests. It was interesting to find out that colored paint was very rare and expensive in the early 1800s, and having all the wood surfaces painted was a show of wealth.
4) The main hallway in the center was also impressive with the large paintings on the wall, especially the famous painting, Lady with a Harp: Eliza Ridgely, that ultimately was the reason the Avalon Foundation saved the mansion.
5) The kitchen was also interesting since Gov Ridgely had his own private chef. There are two stoves that were used to lower pots into for the making of sauces that are very unique and unusual.
6) The outside grounds and gardens are beautiful, although in the early spring very there were still very few flowers.
7) They had a walkin (or rather walkdown) ice house that you can go into that would be used to store ice for the summer. It is nearly 50 feet deep and when filled with ice over the winter, Gov. Ridgely would have chilled wine all summer.
8) Behind the house is a small cemetery with tombs and headstones of the primary members of the Ridgely family.
9) By walking down the hill and crossing the street you can visit the remains of the farming and dairy operation. The Farm House has a small museum in it, but the most interesting part was that they had opened up some of the walls so you could see how they were constructed and how the house was expanded over the years.
9) The dairy is fed by a natural stream to create a cool environment. The most interesting feature was the fake chimney on top of the dairy. This was done to maintain the illusion that this area was a small village when viewed from the Mansion, which was all the rage at the time.
10) There are also two stone slave quarters remaining on the property to give you a sense of the living conditions they had.