Just outside of Baltimore in Towson, Maryland is the Hampton National Historic Site, part of the National Park Service since 1948, when it was the first site to receive recognition for architectural merit. Built in a popular Georgian domestic style, the mansion is a series of three main units connected by recessed “hyphens,” stretching 175 feet across a large hill. A thirty-four-foot tall cupola surmounts the central unit, creating a palatial effect that some called “pretentious” during its construction in the late eighteenth century. Today, the mansion is the decorative and architectural centerpiece of the site, but extant farm buildings introduce the servants, slaves, and farmers who ran the estate for its long tenure as a successful farm. These buildings include everything from an orangerie and greenhouses to stone slave quarters and an icehouse, making Hampton a rare example of an eighteenth and nineteenth century plantation and farm left intact.
Seven generations of the influential Ridgely family inhabited Hampton, actively engaging in regional politics and society. Patriarch Captain Charles Ridgely, who made his fortune in the iron business during the Revolutionary War, began work on the mansion and farm complex in 1783, but died in 1790, the year of its completion. His nephew, Charles Carnan Ridgley (1760-1829), took over, and was thrice elected as the state’s governor, ensuring the family’s place in Maryland history. The stories of successive Ridgely generations, and the masses that lived and worked at Hampton, are retained today, as different eras are interpreted room-by-room. The effect is comprehensive, but also accurate, as approximately ninety-five percent of the collection on view is original to the site, one perk of its single-family ownership.
Among the 45,000 objects in the collection, perhaps the most spectacular is a group of painted furniture in the drawing room-an extraordinary set remaining in situ. The renowned Baltimore furniture workshop of John and Hugh Finlay completed the commission in 1832, one of the firm’s final projects after Hugh died in late 1830. The late neoclassical suite is decorated with elaborate foliate designs and swan accents, and includes a center table, pier table, fourteen chairs, and a sofa with finely carved and gilded swan arms.
The Ridgelys’ prosperity is further suggested in the dining room, styled to reflect 1810 to 1830. Atop a large sideboard is an impressive display of silver, including a large covered cup, one of three trophies won for Charles Ridgely by his most successful horse, Postboy, in 1804, ‘05, and ‘06. The table is set for a party of ten with the family’s armorial porcelain. As was often the case in the period, the Ridgely crest is prominently displayed throughout the house.
The music room is interpreted as 1870 to 1890 and holds an elegant harp created for Eliza Ridgely (1803-1867), a third generation Ridgely mistress. Made by Sebastian Erard, the celebrated London maker, the harp was given to Eliza for her fourteenth birthday, and she is shown about to play it in an 1818 painting by Thomas Sully. A copy of the portrait hangs in the room, the original was given to the National Gallery of Art in 1945 as part of a deal that laid the foundation for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Visitors to today’s Historic Hampton are able to tour the grounds and the mansion, learning about the many diverse aspects of life on the estate. Historic Hampton is located at 535 Hampton Lane in Towson, Maryland. The mansion is open seven days a week from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Entrance is free, but call ahead to schedule a group or a tour of the mansion, home farm, slave quarters, dairy or stable. For more information, call (410) 823-1309, or visit www.nps.gov/hamp or Historichampton.org.