Home of the Week: Once a waterfront mansion, now a stately ruin

Wendi Winters
Contact Reporterwwinters@capgaznews.com

It must have been a stunning structure to see when traders, watermen and various military sailed up the Rhode River in the southern part of Anne Arundel County.

Sitting atop a hill and commanding a scenic view of the river, the Java Mansion was constructed in a colonial Georgian style, with a symmetrical composition and formal, classical details. An open, two-story porch stretched across the waterfront side of the 2 ½ story gambrel or Dutch roof structure.

In the summer months, during the 1880s, a hammock was strung across the top porch. An 1884 sketch shows a pair lounging in the hammock.

The mansion was similar in appearance to Mount Clare in southwest Baltimore, the residence of Charles Carroll (Barrister). He was related by marriage to Nicolas Maccubbin, an Annapolis merchant-planter, who purchased the plantation in the late 1740s.

The house, made of locally produced brick, had five parts: the main structure with two fireplaces on each of the three floors, plus fireplaces in the basement; an enclosed hyphen or passageway on either side; and smaller, gambrel roofed structures attached to the hyphens. One wing functioned as the home’s kitchen. And, there were no bathrooms inside.

The mansion was built around 1747, and its days were numbered when it was struck by lightning in 1890. In a domino effect, the house caught fire, the roof and interior framing tumbled and parts of walls in the front and rear of the building collapsed. It was rebuilt with numerous Victorian architectural features, but only the hyphen containing the kitchen was rebuilt.

Though subsequent owners continued to inhabit the residence into the 1950s as a summer place, the repairs done to the house after the lightening-triggered fire were inadequate. It was abandoned. The structure deteriorated, mortar crumbled, wood supports rotted, the roofs and walls gradually collapsed again.

Maryland Pilgrimage Tour

The Java Mansion Ruins, the Rain Garden and Meadow at the Charles McC. Mathias Laboratory, and the Garden Pond will be included in the Maryland Pilgrimage Tour of eight fascinating, historic sites in southern Anne Arundel County April 28.

The Java Mansion is part of SERC – the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater. Over 50 years, SERC has acquired 2,650 acres in the area. It acquired 700 acres including the mansion, the surrounding farmland and the Sellman or Woodlawn farm in 2008.

The land was settled in 1652 by the Thomas Sparrow family and owned by four generations of Sparrows.

According to Anson “Tuck” Hines, director of SERC, John Contee purchased the property in 1819 and established a slave-powered tobacco plantation. The mansion was then known as “Squirrel Neck,” and the plantation was “Sparrow’s Rest.”

“John Contee, in his late teens or early 20s was a 2nd Lieutenant in the Marines. He fought aboard the USS Constitution during the War of 1812. It was nicknamed ‘Old Ironsides’ when it defeated the HMS Guerrierre. A few months later, the U.S. vessel captured and destroyed another British ship, the frigate HMS Java,” Hines said. “He might have received prize money from that battle which was used to purchase the plantation. He renamed the house the ‘Java Mansion’.”

The farm was divided between Contee’s two sons in 1859, the portion with the mansion remained Java Farm, later Java Dairy; and the northern part and the residence was Contee Farm, accompanied by Contee’s Wharf, used for shipping tobacco and produce during the 19th and 20th centuries.

Steel skeleton

Hines said the Java Mansion, now a steel skeleton of its former self, was stabilized with steel beams and frames. The task was completed in 2017. Earlier, a temporary set of tripods and frames installed in 2009, prevented the remaining structure from falling during the July 16, 2010 earthquake.

The effect is a sculptural and wondrous monument.

Around the house’s perimeter, Hines pointed to areas where other structures once stood.

“We’re saving the structure that remains,” he said. “It’s an iconic reminder of human habitation of this site – nearly 400 years since the first colonial settlers and African-Americans arrived, and, before that, 4,000 years of inhabitation by Native Americans.”

Since SERC acquired the Java, Contee and Sellman lands from the Kirkpatrick-Howat family in 2008 and placed the properties under a conservation easement, several archaeological surveys and detailed excavations have uncovered a trove of artifacts from several eras.

“It’s an exhibit, a historic reminder of this site and how it fits into the landscape,” Hines said.

When you go

Details of the April 28 Maryland Pilgrimage Tour in southern Anne Arundel County

When you go: The Maryland House and Garden Pilgrimage takes place in the southern part of Anne Arundel County Saturday, April 28 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. rain or shine. Additional tour dates and places in four other counties are: Prince Georges County, April 21; Talbot County, May 12; Cecil County, May 20; and St. Mary’s County, May 26. What: The eight tour sites include the William Brown House in Historic London Town & Gardens, Ballard House in Davidsonville, Arden in Harwood, the Rosenwald School Galesville Community Center, the Zantzinger Farmhouse in Harwood, Larkins Hundred in Edgewater, Margaret’s Fields in Edgewater, and the SERC Mansion Ruins in Edgewater. Date and Time: April 28, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Rain or Shine. Cost:  Advance Tickets for Anne Arundel County only: $35, Day-Of Tickets: $40. Tickets can be purchased at any site with cash or check, or online for $37.22 at https://www.mhgp.org/  . Boxed Lunch: Boxed or seated lunches lunches are available at the Galesville Community Center. There is a choice of fried chicken, fried fish or a vegetarian option, all with sides, water or a soft drink, and dessert. $15 by cash or check. Advance reservations and payment are encouraged by April 21. Contact Gertrude Makell at 410-703-0610 or communitycenter@historicgalesville.org. The mailing address is: Galesville Community Center, P.O. Box 118, Galesville, MD 20765. Parking: Available in the lot by the London Town Visitor Center. Pilgrimage tickets will be sold in the Visitor Center.

Would you like to see your house, townhome, condo, apartment, cottage or cabin cruiser featured as The Capital's Home of the Week? To nominate your home, send Wendi Winters an email with your contact information and details about your residence to wwinters@capgaznews.com.

See more Homes of the Week »

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad