Park rangers at Hampton National Historic Site used to find visitors wandering around the grounds of the 18th century mansion. They weren't lost, exactly, but they weren't getting a good orientation of the park. It became clear visitors needed a visitor center.
The new Visitor Contact Station, dedicated in ceremonies April 24, offers that orientation, according to Ranger Caitlin Ward. "This is a nice starting place for visitors," she said.
A one-story building offers orientation posters with a little history and a map of the mansion, grounds and the farm across Hampton Lane, restrooms and a gift shop. Park rangers are also on hand to help visitors figure out where they want to go, what time the house tours are and other information.
The newly developed site also includes parking for buses and lots of cars, according to Ranger Jim Bailey. Before, the only parking available were a few spaces next to the mansion, which was inadequate for bus groups or during special events, he said.
"This is a better place for sending a larger group over to the mansion and over to the farm," Bailey said.
The 2,400-square-foot building, designed by GWWO Architects, and parking lot cost $2.056 million to construct, according to Ranger Vincent Vaise, chief of interpretation at Hampton. Funding came from a federal SAFETEA-LU grant which was matched by the Baltimore County Office of Tourism. Additional funding was provided by Historic Hampton Inc.
"It really represents a strong partnership," Vaise said.
Planning for the building took several years, according to Vaise. Since the property entered the National Park system in 1948, one of the house's "hyphens" — narrow buildings connecting outbuildings with the main house — had been used as the visitor center. "Visitors didn't get that," Vaise said. Instead, they would end up knocking on the doors of one of two trailers located near the entrance of the park.
The need for a visitor center became even more apparent when the park added the farm in the 1980s, according to Vaise. "It orients people to everything," he said.
The park sees some 35,000 to 40,000 visitors a year and the number is growing, according to Vaise. With the new center, he's hoping for even more.
"The better your facilities — the more visitors you may get," he said.
Vaise noted that 2016 is the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service.
"That contact station is making us centennial ready," he said, noting Hampton is the only National Park Service unit in Baltimore County.
He pointed out the more prominent National Park Service sign on the new building. "It's really important that people understand that the park is nationally significant," he said.
The visitor center's signage offers options for visits of one, two and three hours and focuses on the house, the gardens and the farm. The house is one of the largest Georgian mansions in the country. Built in 1790, it was also the home of the 15th governor of Maryland, Charles Carnan Ridgely.
Formal gardens lie below the house. They were due to be planted after Mother's Day. The property also features a number of old catalpa trees and a Cedar of Lebanon planted in the 1840s.
The farm, which includes a farm house, dairy, barns and slave quarters, contains all original buildings. "Everything is original," Bailey said.
Eastern National, which handles gift shops at 150 national parks, has taken over the gift shop at Hampton, according to Ken Harvey. "It helps fund the park," he said, explaining that a portion of the proceeds is returned to the National Park Service.
"All the items in the shop have an interpretative message," Bailey said. Even the coffee mugs include a bit of information about the former home of the Ridgely family. "It's an opportunity to take a piece of Hampton home with them."