Hampton Mansion puts descendant of original owners in the Christmas spirit

Catherine Thomas Burnett, a direct descendant of the Ridgely family who built the historic Hampton Mansion, has fond childhood memories of the 23-room house on 63 acres in Towson.

"I came in and played with toys and baked cookies," she said. She has old photos packed away of her as a young girl, decorating the Christmas tree, and she remembers, "I wandered around a lot."


Burnett is 47 now, a cultural historian by profession and a former assistant curator for the Baltimore Museum of Art, who lives in Roland Park. But the grand manor house, built between 1783 and 1790 and sold to the National Park Service in 1948, still has a special place in her heart. Burnett serves on the board of directors of Historic Hampton, Inc., a promotional and support group for what is now the Hampton National Historic Site.

Holly trims a mantle at Hampton National Historic Site, which is being decorated for the Christmas season, Friday, Dec. 4, 2015, in Towson.
Holly trims a mantle at Hampton National Historic Site, which is being decorated for the Christmas season, Friday, Dec. 4, 2015, in Towson. (Steve Ruark / Baltimore Sun)

She also helps to plan events and works on archival projects related to the site, which has a huge collection of historic documents, including a trove of historic papers donated by direct descendant Margaret Bennett.

The house, once the home Charles Carnan Ridgely, governor of Maryland in the early 1800s, was a home away from home for Burnett. Her mother, Dorothy Ridgely Thomas, who died in 2012, was a direct descendant of the house's builder, Charles Ridgely, an ironworks owner and former mercantile ship's captain, who was known as Captain Ridgely and as Charles Ridgely of Hampton. He was also a member of the Maryland legislature and "the acknowledged political boss of Baltimore County," according to a guide book published by the Park Service.

The house is where Burnett can be found this weekend. She will be manning one of the rooms as a volunteer during the annual "Holidays at Hampton: A Yuletide Celebration."

The event will feature everything from hourly tours of the house on Hampton Lane to live music, a candlelight open house, and period activities and crafts. The house was decorated in period styles this week by local District 3 Federated Garden Clubs of Maryland and other groups. The Lutherville Garden Club on Monday trimmed the Christmas tree, which is in the music room and reaches to the 14-foot-high ceiling.

"It's a big community effort to decorate it," said Gregory Weidman, who works for the National Park Service as curator of the site.

"We enjoy it and we've been longtime supporters of the Hampton mansion," said Linda Tingle, membership chairman of the Federated Garden Clubs, as 10 women from the Lutherville Garden Club decorated the tree. "I've got too many volunteers and more on standby."

"I love it," said club president Jackie Albertson, of Timonium, who was participating for the first time.

About 1,500 people are expected for the Yuletide Celebration on Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 12-13, Weidman said.

For Burnett, visiting the house is like old home week. Although she never lived or stayed there, she grew up nearby, "through the woods," she said. She visited about once a month. Her mother had visited weekly as a child, eating Sunday dinner with her grandparents.

"I remember for Christmas specifically I would go over and I would help decorate the Christmas tree," she said. A curator who lived in the house would make her and her brother and two sisters cookies. Her mother was a volunteer and her father, Andrew Banks Thomas, who is still living, served on the grounds committee.

"I have great memories of Christmas there," she said. "It was always very festive."

As an adult, Burnett maintained close ties with the site except for eight years, when she lived in New York and worked for Forbes magazine. She returned to the Baltimore area in 1997 and joined the board of the Hampton National Historic Site in 2000. It was a natural fit because of her professional expertise as a historian and "my personal relationship with Hampton," she said.

Goucher College's dance group Choreographie Antique will perform a Grand War of 1812 Ball on Sunday at the Holidays at Hampton celebration at Hampton Mansion in Towson.

Although she takes a professional interest in many of the area's historic houses and buildings, she especially loves Hampton.


"It's personally rewarding," she said. "I guess I have a fondness for Hampton over others. It's kind of a jewel that so many people don't know about, unfortunately."

Half the size of Baltimore

Originally, the Hampton site was part of a larger tract called Northampton that once included a farm house, tobacco barns and stables. Some of the outlying buildings are still there, including slaves' quarters. The main house, originally called Hampton Hall, was believed to be the largest residence in the United States when it was built near the end of the Revolutionary War, according to the guide book.

The Hampton estate and surrounding land totaled 12,000 acres when it was inherited by Carnan, a nephew of the childless Charles Ridgely. Carnan, a state delegate, senator, governor from 1815-18, and father of 14 children with his wife, Priscilla, expanded the property to 25,000 acres — half the size of modern-day Baltimore, including Lutherville, White Marsh and parts of Baltimore City —and made many improvements to the main house and grounds, including adding formal gardens.

Carnan's portrait hangs above the mantle in the music room. Also in the music room is a harp owned by Eliza Eichelberger Ridgely, second wife of Carnan's son, John Ridgely, who was the first child born at Hampton Hall. Hanging in the Great Hall of the main house is a portrait of Eliza Eichelberger Ridgely, a noted horticulturist, sophisticate and world traveler. In the picture, she is playing her harp.

She and her husband were the second largest owners of slaves in Baltimore County, but the family was deeply conflicted about the Civil War, sympathetic toward the South, but worried about the war's effect on their real estate holdings in Maryland, which was a buffer state during the war, according to the guide book.

The estate has changed little since then, except to dwindle in acreage as profits from farming declined in the early 1900s. The Great Depression made maintenance and property taxes too expensive, and after World War II, the property's sixth and final owner, John Ridgely Jr., sold it to the Avalon Foundation.

The foundation donated the property to the National Park Service, which was faced with post-war budget problems and appointed the Society for Preservation of Maryland Antiquities as custodian. Under President Harry Truman, the site was designated by the Secretary of the Interior as the Hampton National Historic Site on June 22, 1948, according to the guide book.

An antique Christmas-themed book from the collection of the Ridgely family, and a photocopy of a Christmas card from the family's collection, sit on a trunk in a bed chamber at Hampton National Historic Site, Friday, Dec. 4, 2015, in Towson. The Ridgely family lived on the estate for seven generations.
An antique Christmas-themed book from the collection of the Ridgely family, and a photocopy of a Christmas card from the family's collection, sit on a trunk in a bed chamber at Hampton National Historic Site, Friday, Dec. 4, 2015, in Towson. The Ridgely family lived on the estate for seven generations. (Steve Ruark / Baltimore Sun)

By the time Burnett was born in 1968, the 24,000-square-foot house had been a museum for 20 years.

"It is a very large house and after the war, it was really impossible for the family to live there," Burnett said. "It just was too much."

But its long history of private ownership is well preserved, from bed steps with a recessed chamber pot in a children's bed chamber to a bell-ringing system for servants that is still connected in the Great Hall. Even the bell in the bell tower of the farm house still works, said Annie Albert, 24, of Ruxton, a former intern at the site, who came back for a day last week to help decorate the house for the holidays.


Authentic holiday setting

Weidman, curator since 2008 and as a consultant since 1998, has worked hard to make the house more authentic for the holidays, even setting tables with period silverware (1790-1810) in the parlor. But she also has refrained from decorating the master bedroom of Gov. Ridgely — because his wife was an ardent Methodist and eschewed elaborate Christmas decorations.

"It's not decorated," she stressed. "It's done authentically."

A stocking hangs by the fireplace in the children's room and old-fashioned decorations sit on a trunk. Weidman, who took off her shoes before walking around the room, showed several holiday-themed books of yesteryear, including one titled, "Evil Deeds and Consequences," with illustrations of "naughty children" with names like Greedy Kate and Cruel Jack mistreating their pets. Another, kinder Christmas book, circa 1858, is called "Little Tales With Lots of Pretty Pictures for Little Folks."

And Weidman showed excerpts from a diary kept by Eliza Eichelberger Ridgely's daughter, also named Eliza and nicknamed Didy, at Christmastime in 1841, with excerpts such as, "At night we read the new Christmas gift books and fixed some of the servants Christmas gifts."

For Albert, who has an undergraduate degree in history from Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania and is applying to graduate schools to study historic preservation and architectural history, it's a time of year to appreciate the mansion even more.

"It's still such a beautiful place," she said, wearing pink rubber gloves to protect the furnishings. "I love how you can come here and feel how the site was."

All the holiday decorations deepen Burnett's appreciation for the Hampton site. She said the house has been decorated for the holidays as far back as she can remember, but that the Yuletide Celebration, a tradition since the 1980s, has grown more and more in recent years, to include crafts, storytelling and other events.

"I feel like that has become more elaborate," Burnett said. "It definitely gets you in the mood, and I think the visitors feel the same way."

For a schedule of events during Holidays at Hampton, go to www.nps.gov/hamp/planyourvisit/yuletide-at-hampton.htm.