Oakland's 200th: Family feuds, militias, racehorses fill plantation's past

The grand dame of Howard County plantation homes turns 200 this year, and her caretaker, the Columbia Association, is throwing a party in her honor. Oakland, the stately white house on the highest hill in Columbia’s Town Center, was a showpiece when it was built in 1811 and remains a coveted location for members of the community to gather for their own celebrations.

The fact that Oakland and its equally old stone carriage house have endured in beauty and function is worthy enough, considering the rise and fall of the estate’s muddied lineage of owners over its two centuries of existence. If it wasn’t for the vision of James Rouse, who saw Oakland’s potential as he was planning Columbia in 1965, Oakland and its history might have been reduced to a few folders in the local archives. Instead, Oakland reflects the past while embracing the future.

“When it was constructed, there was nothing quite like it architecturally in Howard County,” says Ken Short, architectural historian for Howard County, who surveyed the house and its title history.

The house was built by a carpenter from Baltimore, Abraham Lerew, who was a virtual unknown at the time and about whom historians know little.

“If his drawings hadn’t survived, we wouldn’t know anything about him,” says Short. Even though Lerew was not an architect, he must have studied the designs of prominent architects in Baltimore and copied them for Oakland. The most important one is the tripartite window on Oakland’s façade. “It was just coming into fashion in 1810,” says Short.

Lerew was hired by Charles Sterrett Ridgely, Oakland’s owner, in July 1810 to construct a grand house. Charles was the son of John Sterrett, a privateer in the American Revolution, and Deborah Ridgely, daughter of a wealthy Baltimore merchant.

John Sterrett purchased 1,696 acres of farmland from Mathias Hammond’s Felicity tract along the Middle Patuxent River in 1785. The property, which was still part of western Anne Arundel County, had a small house of log and stone and some outbuildings. Two years later, John Sterrett died. His son, Charles, changed his name to Charles Sterrett Ridgely, to come into the line of inheritance of a maternal uncle.

Deborah Sterrett sold 567 acres to Charles and another 533 acres to his brother, James, with an agreement for the sons to make payments over time. Charles built the large white plantation house, which was finished in September 1811, and the 100-foot long stone carriage house, as well.

“The wealthy Maryland gentry are building these carriage houses to show off their horses. The stone carriage house is clearly making a statement,” says Short. Ridgely, who served as a major in the Maryland Militia in the War of 1812, also built a mill, which burned in 1890 and was never rebuilt.

Admirable architecture

Although it’s often called a manor house today, Oakland was never a manor, says Short. (A manor is granted by the king, like the Carroll family’s Doughoregan property farther west, according to Short.)

Oakland is a plantation house, and a nicely proportioned one, with its two wings attached to the main house. The blind arches are original, although the original roof sat about three feet lower and had parapets, which no longer exist. There was a one-story porch on the garden side of the house with a balcony on top. The second-floor jib windows opened from the top and bottom so that people could walk out onto the balcony. The foyer was small with rooms on each side accessed by a main hallway. There was just one main staircase from the left side of the hallway, and a back staircase from the kitchen for use by servants. To the rear was a double parlor.

Oakland’s exterior was roughcast over stone, typical of the Federal style of the time. The fanlight window on the front was not original, but likely very early, Short says. The leaded glass, which predates the Civil War period, was most likely added by the second family to live in Oakland, the Olivers.

When Deborah Sterrett died, her four daughters sued their brothers for the value of their part of the estate. Apparently, James and Charles never made good on their promised payments. By then James was insolvent and Charles couldn’t pay, so he sold his share of Oakland to Robert Oliver in 1826. Robert Oliver sold the farm to his son, Thomas. At that time there were a grist mill, a mill race, apple and peach orchards and an old stone washhouse, which is now called the Rose Price Cottage, where the Center of African American Culture is today. In 1838, Thomas Oliver sold Oakland to George Riggs Gaither, of Montgomery County. Gaither made it into a productive farm, growing wheat, corn, oats, hay and other crops, and producing wool and butter from its livestock. There was also a stone quarry. Labor was supplied by slaves.

When Gaither’s son, George Jr., married Rebecca Hanson Dorsey, the father built Bleak House for the newlyweds. It was made of the same stone as the carriage house and was within easy walking distance of the main house. It was George Jr. who raised a militia called the Howard Dragoons, to help quell the riots in Baltimore in 1861. Gaither led drills on the sweeping front lawn of Oakland, according to Barbara Warfield Feaga, an Ellicott City resident who has recorded 11 generations of her family’s history in her book, “Howard’s Roads to the Past.” Her grandfather, Joshua Warfield, and her great-uncle, Milton Warfield, were officers in the unit. Gaither and most of his dragoons, including Milton Warfield, who was a doctor, left to join the Confederate Army farther south. In October 1862, a contingent of six Union soldiers from the 12th New Jersey Volunteers raided Oakland. They found nothing of interest, according to a copy of an officer’s journal obtained by the Howard County Office of Touism.

A new era

As the Civil War drew to an end, the Gaithers sold their farm to Philip and Katherine Tabb.

It was a new era for the country and for Oakland. The Tabbs bred thoroughbreds and built a half-mile racetrack on the property, which was prominently situated on the Columbia Turnpike. Tabb sold the farm in 1874 to his father-in-law, Francis Morris, who put the plantation on the map for a different reason. Morris, an agricultural researcher, introduced the practice of corn silage and developed the use of earthen trenches. Morris’ agricultural innovations earned Oakland designation as a historic landmark for agricultural engineering by the American Society of Agricultural Engineers.

Morris was also known as the owner and breeder of Ruthless, the first Belmont stakes winner in 1867. His stable ran under scarlet silks.

Successive owners included various branches of the Tabb family and a lawyer, Thomas Findlay, who ploughed up the racecourse in 1906. Findlay installed electricity at Oakland but defaulted on the mortgage in 1923. Oakland stood vacant until 1934, when Alpheus Ryan, of Washington, D.C., purchased it and made radical changes to both the exterior and interior of Oakland. He knocked down the partitions on either side of the front hall, enlarged the foyer and built the dual staircases flanking the main house. He opened up the back parlors into one ballroom and installed the two marble fireplaces. He mimicked the entryway fanlight with an interior one over the ballroom entrance. He tore down the porches, demolished a greenhouse, and also removed the yellow stucco from the exterior, exposing the stone.

Oakland was sold several times in the 1950s, including to the Price family, who opened a nursing home there. The Rouse Co. bought it in 1966, used it for temporary headquarters, and then leased it to Antioch College and Dag Hammarskjold College. The Red Cross owned the house from 1977 to 1988, when it was sold to the Columbia Association, the town’s homeowner’s association.

Oakland’s carriage house is now owned by Kittamaqundi Community Church, and the ruins of Bleak House, next to Wilde Lake, were converted to a playground.

Oakland itself serves as the village office for the Town Center community  association and opens its doors for teas, weddings, concerts, meetings and other events throughout the year.

“We wanted to preserve the building as a treasure in Howard County,” says Michelle Miller, director of community services for the Columbia Association. “It’s a commitment of CA’s that this building will be upheld for generations to come.” 

Oakland’s Birthday Bash

Saturday, Sept. 17, 11 a.m. - 3 p.m.
5430 Vantage Point Road, Columbia

• 11 a.m.-3 p.m.: Display of Oakland’s history in the foyer
• 11 a.m. and noon: Walking tours of the Oakland estate from the Vantage Point neighborhood to Wilde Lake, led by Barbara Kellner, of the Columbia Archives, and Lauren McCormack, of the Howard County Historical Society
• 1 p.m.: U.S. Army Field Band concert in the Oakland Ballroom, featuring pieces from the early 1800s
• 1:30 p.m.: Guest speaker Ken Short, architectural historian for Howard County’s Department of Planning and Zoning

• 2 p.m.: Dance demonstration by students from Howard Community College, featuring dances popular in the early 1800s

Food and children’s activities also are planned. The event is sponsored by the Columbia Association. For more information, go to www.historic-oakland.com.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
30°