Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

A Private Kingdom

This innocent (let's pretend it's unstaged) candid captures a watershed event in the history of a grand American family. John Ridgely Jr. (1882-1959) and his second wife Jane (d. 1978), having supervised donation to the National Park Service of Hampton, ancestral home of the Ridgelys since 1790, are moving out. Hampton was once the greatest Georgian mansion in America, center of a 25,000-acre agro-industrial complex that produced iron, beef, grain, marble, corn, dairy, racehorses and stupendous quantities of money, primarily due to the efforts of 300 slaves and a low-cost battalion of convict laborers and indentured immigrants. At its zenith in 1829, Hampton's second master, Maryland Governor Charles Carnan Ridgely (1760-1829) possessed both the fortune and the inclination to live like a prince, which is exactly what he did. That was a different world, however, and on this spring morning in 1948, his aristocratic descendant, like aristocratic types everywhere, is scrambling to salvage whatever he can. Where are Mr. & Mrs. Ridgely going? He's pointing to it with his cane; the old Home Farm across the street, used for centuries by Hampton estate managers, but now the home of Hampton's last private owner.

The Ridgelys, like many distinguished clans, had a penchant for using the same Christian names over and over, from one generation to the next, in the instant case Charles and John. This makes it practically impossible to keep them all straight. It was a Col. Charles Ridgely who bought the core of the property in 1745, and a Capt. Charles (his son) who built the house and died there pretty much the moment it was done. Then another Charles (the Maryland governor) took over, and it was during his watch that the estate, originally measuring a comparatively modest 1500 acres, reached its swollen apogee of 25,000. The original holding had been in the family for almost forty years before work on the mansion began. Hampton, swan song of a talented local builder named Jehu Howell, is a typical 18th century 5-part Palladian country house, surprisingly grand considering the remote location. It consists of a pair of outrigger wings connected to a central block by means of low-rise hyphens. Its principal feature, besides size, is the enormous lantern perched atop the central block, a theatrical touch that makes an already big house seem even bigger.

Except for a flight of marble steps leading up to the front door, the south or garden facade of Hampton is almost identical to the entry facade on the north. The south side overlooks a terraced lawn, below which is a series of descending terraces laid out as parterres. The condition of these has waxed and waned over the centuries - from showplace geometrical patterns of clipped box filled with extravagant annuals to plain grass lawns - depending on the interest of Hampton's occupants and the state of their finances. The parterres reached an elaborate peak during the ownership of John Carnan Ridgely (1790-1867), son of the governor, who in 1829 inherited Hampton on only (if you will forgive the expression) 4500 of its 25,000 acres. The 39-year-old Ridgely's wife Eliza (1803-1867) had a taste for expensive furniture, expensive art and expensive plants. She brought to the marriage sufficient dollars of her own, however, not only to pay for these luxuries, but to offset the financial impact on the estate caused by the abolition of slavery. Not for the first time, Hampton's parterres are today under restoration once again. Beside greenhouses, celebrated parterres and an orangerie, John and Eliza Ridgely piped the house for gas and added bathrooms and a heating plant - of sorts.

Rebecca Dorsey, wife of Hampton's builder, Capt. Charles, was a distant relation of the Howards of Castle Howard in Yorkshire, England, which fact is said to explain the lantern on Hampton's roof. A quick comparison of the images below shows why. The same comparison holds a note of caution, as well, for those of us convinced that nothing has ever been bigger or better than what we have in America. The Ridgelys lost Hampton almost seventy years ago, when it was on 60-odd acres. The Howards still own Castle Howard on 8800 acres - and they even still live there. Whereas 25,000 acres is certainly nothing to sniff at, it hardly compares to the holdings of Polish Princess Elzbieta Lubomirska (1736-1816), contemporary of the grandest of the Ridgelys and a friend (interestingly) of Benjamin Franklin. Lubomirska owned 150,000 serfs, 19 castles and several medium sized cities.

Here's Hampton's builder, Capt. Ridgely, painted in 1765 by John Hasselius. Unfair as it may be to judge a prior era by the standards of today, it is an unavoidable fact that Capt. Ridgely's prosperity depended as much on slavery and conscripted labor (including British revolutionary war prisoners) as it did on shrewdness and ambition - and that's not counting a whopping inheritance and his insider's ability to pay beans for confiscated Tory-owned property. During the revolution, war materiel produced in Hampton's labor-intensive iron foundries, cold and silent by the time of John and Eliza, made the Capt. even richer.

His wife Rebecca, painted in the same year as her husband, and by the same artist, has a disquieting look of feline entitlement. They may have been wonderful people, but if so, they should have sued that painter.

The Capt. and his lady, for all that power and money, never managed to have children, and so, upon his death in 1790, he left the whole shebang to his nephew, Charles Ridgely Carnan. Young Carnan had been in business with his uncle for many years. He was not only qualified to administer the family money mill, but quite willing to agree to his uncle's requirement that, in order to continue the family name, he change his name to Charles Carnan Ridgely. This sort of thing is so typical in society annals that it hardly merits note. Governor Ridgely, as the new lord of Hampton would ultimately become in 1815, not only brought the estate to its peak, he simultaneously sewed the seeds of its destruction. Upon his death in 1829, his will freed Hampton's hundreds of slaves, which of course, he didn't need any more. The estate itself was then parceled out to eleven separate heirs, not that this mattered much to son John and his rich wife Eliza. They promptly went out and bought sixty new slaves to keep things going. When these bolted after the Civil War, they simply hired replacements and paid them with Mrs. Ridgely's money.

My hostess today is Hampton Curator Gregory (it's a family name) Weidman, who endured my insistent requests to look behind every closed door with patience and tact. Hampton's first floor plan, setting aside scale and decoration, is not much different from countless center hall colonials built before and since. The vintage views of the main hall - the first looking south, the second looking north - were taken in 1900 and illustrate a type of material accumulation - of paintings, furniture, objets d'art, etc. - that comes with being rich for a century and a half.

I confess I rather like the old fashioned accumulation look - nifty chairs in front of nifty chairs, pictures so numerous the walls behind them are invisible, an entire Bengali district's worth of animal skins on the floor (I know, I know, very politically incorrect). Hampton's rooms today lack that appealing former cocktail of priceless objets and cracked ceilings. They are no longer consistently of any one period either, instead being impeccably decorated in a mélange of styles, an homage to different owners from different eras. Today's view south down the main hall is more correct to the early 1800s, and considerably more chaste than that which greeted guests in 1900. P.S. That's the Ridgely crest with the stag on top.

I loathe the term "networking," probably because I'm not very good at it. Yet networking was what saved Hampton from the steamroller of advancing suburban Baltimore. The painting below is a copy of Thomas Sully's "Lady with a Harp," an 1818 idealization of the future Eliza Ridgely, painted when she was a lass of 15. The original hung in the main hall at Hampton, more or less anonymously, for over a century. Then in 1945, a renewed interest in Sully brought National Gallery Director David Finley to Hampton to see if he could buy it, which he did. While there, he saw the threat to Hampton from suburban sprawl and financial pressure. In the wake of a cordial experience with John Ridgely Jr. (who, incidentally, threw in the portrait of Eliza's husband for free), Finley talked Hampton up amongst his influential friends. The eventual result was purchase of the estate in 1948 by the Avalon Foundation, founded in 1940 by the children of Andrew W. Mellon. Avalon promptly donated the property to the National Park Service, at which point John and Jane Ridgely ceremoniously descended the steps of Hampton, trailed by a white coated servant with arms full of luggage, and moved across the street.

Hampton's four principal public rooms all open onto the main hall. Let's have a look at the Drawing Room first, the entrance to which is just left of the front door in the image below. The theme here is 1890s Rococo Revival, its execution the result of painstaking scholarship based on old photos, upholstery fragments, teensy swatches of vanished curtains, etc., etc. It's quite a contrast to the severity of the main hall.

The décor of the Music Room (door on the right, south end of the hall) speaks to a slightly earlier period. I quote from the Hampton National Historic Site Guidebook: "In Hampton's Music Room (1870-1890)...a photograph from the 1880s showed one of the windows in summertime, with just lace curtains and a painted window shade in use. Hampton's curators were able to match the distinctive motifs seen in the photograph with a surviving shade that was one of a set of three featuring allegories of Music, Theater, and Gardening. Hand-painted reproductions were commissioned which meticulously recreate even the style of the brushstrokes." Wow.

Greg is standing in the door between the Music Room and the former plantation office, the latter located in the west hyphen. Beyond the office was one of three bathrooms which once served the entire building. Two of these were located in the west wing. This one, on the ground floor, is now just a big room, with one of those yawning colonial looking fireplaces. According to the plan, however, the space was originally divided into several "bathing" rooms, to which hot water was delivered by servants. Toilets? Fuhgeddaboudit.

Let's retrace our steps across the office and Music Room, out into the main hall, and down to what Hampton labels the Parlour, but what I'd call a reception room. From there we'll loop back out into the hall and check out the dining room, notable, among other things, for a very handsome scenic wallpaper called "Monuments of Paris." Was this same pattern on the walls in Governor Ridgely's day? Who knows? What has been determined, however, (and don't ask me how) is that in 1829 the same pattern was available in shops near the governor's Baltimore townhouse.

A leg of the main hall, entered originally through open arch into which a door was inserted many years ago, leads to the main - and for a long time the only - staircase up. What is it about redundant furniture, ratty oriental runners, flaking ceilings, and gloomy color choices (particularly on trim) that never fails to charm me? It's lucky, I suppose, that I'm not in charge of "interpreting" historic sites.

A corridor behind the stair leads into the east wing, passing the former serving pantry (connected to the dining room and too chockablock with stuff to photograph) en route to the kitchen. The latter basks in the sort of hygienically restored splendor that would leave a Hampton cook stunned. I love the call bells on the corridor wall. (Think: 'Downton Abbey').

Before the reign of Eliza and John, the main stair was the only stair to floors 2 and 3. J & E inserted a narrow service stair - the ascent of which is rather like a game of twister - connecting the serving pantry to a landing between the nursery and the housekeeper's room. We'll glimpse it in a moment.

Hampton's interiors, I am informed, were finished on the upper floors first, and the crew was still on the second floor when designer/builder Jehu Howell died in 1787. This accounts for the particular elegance of the second floor hall when compared to the rooms below. I'm not entirely sure this is true, but it's a good story. Most of the bedrooms on 2 have been splendidly restored and furnished.

The other bedrooms are either display spaces (the fragment of wall illustrates a decoration scheme of the past; the photo shows John Jr's son, not surprisingly also named John, and his wife Lillian in wartime uniforms) or un-renovated storage depots. The tree in the middle of the view is a specimen Cedar of Lebanon, planted a century and half ago by Eliza Ridgely.

Let's take a quick peek down the nursery corridor to the head of the back stair. Until 1902, the only bathrooms - sorry, "bathing rooms" - in the entire house were the two in the west wing, and the only way you could get there from family bedrooms on 2 was to haul yourself downstairs, cross the main hall, navigate the music room and the plantation office, and hope to arrive simultaneously with the hot water. In 1902, a single modern bathroom - with commode, sink and tub - was belatedly installed in space cut out of the former nursery. It's gone now, worse luck. If you didn't want to use a chamber pot, this was your only choice in the whole house.

Unlike Tara, Hampton escaped the Civil War unscathed, a matter of considerable luck considering the Southern sympathies of its slave-holding owners. After Lincoln's election, Eliza's son, another Charles, formed the Baltimore County Horse Guards, which proved an opportunity to fit himself out in a snappy uniform and trumpet the still familiar call for "states' rights." After an adventurous evening burning railroad bridges, the Yankees captured one of his militia colleagues, a fellow named John Merryman, and charged him with treason. Merryman did eventually escape execution, but not before the same threat led young Charles Ridgely's parents to promise the Yankee occupation authorities that their son would henceforth remain close to Hampton and cause no further mischief. On that note, let's head upstairs for a brief look at the third floor (a warren of rooms crammed with storage) and finally to the most exciting part of Hampton, the lantern on top.

What goes up...

By the late 1920s, Hampton's last Ridgely and his father, both named John, were losing the fight to maintain the place on its remaining thousand acres. In 1929 they formed the Hampton Development Corporation, whose grandiose sounding brochure, seen below, heralded the pleasant but largely unexceptional suburban tracts that surround the house today. Land sales, despite a sag in the '30s, kept the proverbial wolf from the door, but only temporarily. We must thank Eliza Ridgely for Hampton's existence today, for without her portrait, its salvation might never have happened. Both mansion and Home Farm across the road are part of the National Historic Site; google Hampton National Historic Site for the link.