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Whitehall estate in Annapolis opens to the public this spring

For Chesapeake Home + Living
One of the area's most famous waterfront mansions opens to the public this spring.

Baltimorean Charles Scarlett was a student at Princeton in the 1930s when he saw a Baltimore Sun photo that would inspire him for the rest of his life. The picture was of Whitehall, an 18th-century Palladian home on 115 acres on the Chesapeake Bay, just outside Annapolis.

Scarlett’s interest in Whitehall remained with him through his college years and beyond, when he was a young man living and working in Baltimore. Scarlett’s daughter, Kathleen Burnett, fondly remembers her father taking her to see Whitehall, from afar, when she was a little girl. “He said, ‘There it is. I’m going to own that one day.’ And he did.”

Scarlett purchased Whitehall in 1946 and spent much of the rest of his life peeling away years of renovations and redecorations, painstakingly restoring the home to its original glory. He lived in the home until he died in 1997.

Today, his children and grandchildren are honoring Scarlett’s legacy by opening Whitehall and its grounds to the public for the first time and establishing a hub for restoration education. In partnership with the Historic Annapolis Foundation, the home and its shoreline property will be open for tours and events starting this spring. Whitehall’s trustees gave Chesapeake Home + Living a sneak preview of the stops on the tour, the history behind them and their plans.

Revolutionary roots

The construction of Whitehall began in 1764. Its original owner, Horatio Sharpe, a provincial governor of Maryland, originally intended to use the home for entertaining. Ultimately, Sharpe didn’t spend much time there; with the Revolutionary War looming, he left Maryland for England, where he died in 1790.

After Sharpe’s departure, Sharpe’s friend John Ridout bought Whitehall, and it remained in the Ridout family for more than a century. Scarlett purchased the estate in 1946; by that time, it had seen several owners and undergone major renovations, including the addition of a second floor.

But Scarlett reversed most of the updates, taking the house back to the way it looked around the 1790s.

Kathleen Burnett recalls her father’s efforts to stay as true to history as possible, tracking down period locks from England and importing wallpaper from China. He carefully chipped away at paint on the walls to discover the home’s original colors “the way a painting conservator would,” she says.

When Scarlett was living in the home, it was primarily a family home; his grandchildren have fond memories of their summers at Whitehall.

“Every summer, for about three months of the year, the family descended from Baltimore — all my cousins and uncles and aunts,” says Scarlett’s grandson, Mark Burnett. “It was wonderful.”

Scarlett occasionally opened the home for private tours but limited publicity and public access. “My grandfather was a great preservationist but also a private man,” explains Mark Burnett.

But now that the family no longer lives at Whitehall, they want to share the treasure with others and establish it as a base for educational opportunities, to honor the memory of Scarlett’s commitment to preservation.

On display

Between April and September, Whitehall will be open the second Sunday of each month from noon until 4:30 p.m. or 5 p.m. Historic Annapolis, which will run the tours, encourages visitors to register in advance because group size will be kept small to minimize the impact on the home.

“We’re just thrilled to be able to share this architectural gem. It’s incredible inside,” says Lisa Robbins, vice president of public programs, education and visitor services at Historic Annapolis. “Anybody that has a little bit of history geek in them will fall head over heels. The history and preservation of the property is incredible.”

Donna Ware, Historic Annapolis’ senior vice president of preservation, praises the home’s intricate details.

“The central portion is this jewel box of a salon, the main entertainment room,” she says. “It has this coved ceiling and in the corners are plaster masks for each of the four winds. Then it opens directly out onto a vista of the Bay that takes your breath away.”

Tours of the home will include that main entertaining room and smaller rooms on either side, plus the original 18th-century kitchen.

Scarlett’s family also hopes that people will visit Whitehall to enjoy the grounds.

“We loved the outside, having the house as a backdrop,” reminisces Mark Burnett. “So we thought about opening the grounds up for people to come and walk and have picnics.”

The family is currently collaborating with multiple entities, including the state of Maryland, Anne Arundel County, the National Trust and the National Park Service, to work out the details of exactly how the grounds can be used.

Whitehall’s grounds will also be made available for weddings and other events, though the parties will have to be held outside to minimize wear and tear on the historic home.

Giving back

The family also hopes to make use of Whitehall’s magnificent shoreline and historical value for educational purposes. They’re in talks with environmental organizations like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation about using Whitehall’s bay shoreline for environmental education and experimentation.

Steep, rapidly eroding slopes on the property’s western shoreline, in particular, present opportunities for environmental restoration.

“There’s so much potential for stabilizing and restoring a good bit of that property,” says Rob Schnabel, a restoration scientist at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “Shoreline areas are the critical area for water quality and wildlife habitat. We, at the Foundation, welcome the opportunity for working with them on a living shoreline.”

On the historic side, the family hopes to create a school to teach preservation techniques to local tradespeople. They recognized a need for more tradespeople specifically trained in the preservation of historic buildings, including timber framing, woodwork and masonry.

“There are remarkably few places to be trained in these techniques,” says Mark Burnett. “We thought, ‘Why wouldn’t we try to figure out a way to have Whitehall also serve as a living lab?’”

The concept behind the school involves classes ranging three to six months in length, geared toward people already working in the construction industry.

The school is still in the early stages of development, with its opening a few years away. But it is already garnering praise. “I think the idea of using it as a place to learn 18th-century trades is just wonderful. To have a homegrown, local source for those skills will be a huge boon to people in Maryland,” says Mimi Calver, executive director of the Friends of the Maryland State Archives.

From the school to events and tours, the actions of Scarlett’s descendants have received a warm response from the community. “I think this just shows wonderful stewardship on the part of the family to come forward and share it,” Ware says. “I commend them, and I think they’re going to see a huge response from the public.”

For more information about Whitehall tours and events, visit annapolis.org and visitwhitehall.org.

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