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The past is prologue for Elkridge's Belmont Manor

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From the front steps of its large manor house, the Belmont estate in Elkridge looks the same as it has for more than two centuries, with rolling pastures and woodlands as far as the eye can see.

Inside, the house retains much of its character from when the prominent Dorsey family built it in the 1730s. Over the years it has been a conference center for the Smithsonian Institution, a meeting facility for the American Chemical Society and a teaching site for Howard Community College.

Now Belmont has a new owner: Howard County government and the county's Department of Recreation and Parks. Three months after acquiring the property for public use, officials say the future is taking shape for one of the region's oldest surviving Colonial-era plantations — and it looks a lot like the past.

Although the parks department is still forming a final plan for using the property, directors say they're working to preserve the history of Belmont so it can be enjoyed by generations to come. Its new name will be Belmont Manor Historic Park.

"This is definitely the new flagship for county-owned historic sites," John Byrd, director of Howard County's Department of Recreation and Parks, said during a recent tour of the property. "It's one of the oldest properties in Howard County. It's the cradle of history in Elkridge. As you travel down the entrance road, you're literally going back in time."

The manor house was a private residence for more than 220 years and has been a meeting facility since the mid-1960s. Byrd said the county expects to continue operating it as a conference center while opening up the grounds to environmental education programs and other offerings.

"We'll be marketing it to the public for meetings, retreats, weddings," he said of the manor house. "It has a lot of potential."

The county purchased the estate from Howard Community College, whose Educational Foundation purchased it in 2004 for $5.2 million. The college used it as a setting for its culinary programs but put it up for sale in 2009 after facing budgetary pressures and ceased operating it altogether in December 2010. The property on Belmont Woods Road has been off limits to the public since then.

Because the county provided $2.6 million to help the college acquire and upgrade the property, it had the right of first refusal to buy it if the college decided to sell. When the college received a private offer of $2.7 million, which Howard County Executive Ken Ulman considered too low, the county exercised its right to buy the property.

To purchase Belmont, the county forgave the $2.6 million debt and paid another $89,188 to match the other offer. The sale was completed in June, but the property remains closed to the public while officials develop plans for its use.

As part of the planning process, Byrd said, the parks department will hold an open house this fall to allow people to visit. It also has moved the parks department's heritage conservation division to Belmont so the county has employees on the property every day.

If all goes according to plan, Byrd said, he believes it will be possible to open Belmont to the public next year, possibly by late spring or summer.

Preservationists say they are encouraged by the new owner and the steps it is taking.

Ken Short, architectural historian for Howard County's planning and zoning department, said Belmont "has been recognized for many years as one of Howard County's most important architectural treasures. The approach they are taking is a good one."

Fred Dorsey, president of Preservation Howard County and a descendant of the Dorsey family, said Belmont is one of the most historically significant tracts in Howard County, perhaps second only to the Carroll family's Doughoregan Manor in Ellicott City.

Dorsey said the county has a strong track record of maintaining historic properties, such as Historic Waverly Mansion, and he sees its purchase as a "step forward" for Belmont.

Dorsey said one of the biggest challenges is likely to be maintaining the exterior of the manor house, which has lead paint and other maintenance problems. But he is encouraged that parks representatives have talked about forming an advisory board to make sure the county protects the property's heritage.

"We have confidence in the fact that they are the owners," Dorsey said of the county government. "They are experienced stewards in overseeing historic properties. ... It's in keeping with what the historic community wants to see."

As the same time, "the devil is going to be in the details," he said. "We are watching them as to how the preservation goes. Our group will continue to monitor their progress."

The Belmont estate's 68 acres contain the manor house, carriage house, caretaker's house, cottage and barn.

According to historians, Belmont was originally part of a 1,662-acre tract called Moore's Morning Choice, granted by a 1695 land patent from King William III of England to Mordecai Moore, founder of the Society of Friends in Maryland

The manor house was built starting in 1738 by the next owner, Caleb Dorsey Jr., an ironmaster, and remained in the extended Dorsey family for more than 200 years. The home of two U.S. senators, Alexander Contee Hanson and Howard Bruce, it was last used as a private residence in 1964, when the Bruce family sold it for $500,000 to an anonymous purchaser who donated it to the Smithsonian. The Smithsonian sold it in 1982 for about $2 million to the American Chemical Society, which used it as a meeting center before selling it in 2004 to the college.

Byrd said the county will sell a 13-acre parcel attached to the estate to generate funds to support the main property, and rent out two of the smaller houses for additional revenue. He said the remaining tract presents opportunities for educational programs about wildlife, nature, history, conservation and other subjects. He noted that Belmont is surrounded by Patapsco Valley State Park and can be connected to it by walking trails.

Byrd said the county estimates that it will cost $500,000 to $600,000 to get the buildings and grounds ready for use by the public. He said the county hopes to make the entire operation as financially self-sustaining as possible, and he noted that several community groups have offered to help clean up the gardens and complete other work on a volunteer basis.

Everyone involved, he said, believes Belmont is a valuable addition to the county's portfolio and worth protecting for the future.

"It's like any old house," he said of the manor. "It just needs lot of attention. It's going to be a long-term project, no question. "

Baltimore Sun librarian Paul McCardell contributed research for this article.

ed.gunts @baltsun.com

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