Columbia's Historic Oakland manor house turns 200

Barbara Kellner of the Columbia Archives and Lauren McCormack of the Howard County Historical Society lead tours of the historic Oakland Manor, which is now 200 years old.
Barbara Kellner of the Columbia Archives and Lauren McCormack of the Howard County Historical Society lead tours of the historic Oakland Manor, which is now 200 years old. (Doug Kapustin, Baltimore Sun)

Whether to development or disaster, Howard County has lost many of its impressive early farmhouses and manors.

But at least one remnant of the landed gentry has not only survived but found new life by changing from a private home to public use.

Historic Oakland has been home to families, nursing care residents, two colleges, church services, a museum and offices for the local Red Cross and the developer of Columbia. Now marking its 200th birthday, the estate built by an heir of Maryland's Ridgely family is busier than ever as a multipurpose venue and community meeting place.

Oakland's current owner, the nonprofit Columbia Association, has completed an extensive restoration. The main house, at 5430 Vantage Point Road, is home to and operated by the CA's Town Center Community Association, which provides space for community meetings and events such as dinners and weddings.

Because of commitments by figures including James Rouse, the developer of Columbia, and Padraic "Pat" Kennedy, the first CA president, Oakland has been able to survive when others didn't, said Barbara Kellner, manager of the Columbia Archives and author of several books about Columbia. Today, it's a bridge across time and one of the most popular meeting places in the area, she said.

"There really is nothing else like it in Howard County," she said. "The setting is homelike, albeit grander than most of us are used to, and that's what makes it so special."

Unlike other manor houses that became too expensive for private families to maintain, Oakland was lucky to have had a succession of owners who took good care of it, Kellner said.

Rouse, in particular, wanted to make sure that Columbia residents understood that the area had a history that should be cherished and protected, and preserving Oakland helped send that message, Kellner said.

"It's a testament to the Rouse Company," she said. "They came in and assessed the land they purchased and decided these buildings were worthy of being preserved. They could have just leveled them, but they saw potential."

Oakland stood out because its design was modern for its time and stayed in the public's favor, and that helped make it worth preserving, said Ken Short, architectural historian with the Howard County Department of Planning and Zoning. A little luck was involved, too: It was not destroyed by fire like many rural homes, he said.

In terms of pedigree, the county's Doughoregan Manor is more significant historically and architecturally, but "this house is the next level down," said Peter Pearre of Trostel & Pearre, the Baltimore-based architecture firm that oversaw the restoration in the 1980s.

"There were many houses in Howard County that disappeared because they were in the way of progress," Pearre said. "You could say Oakland is lucky because it had owners who had an appreciation for it. … It was a showplace for the area."

Started as Felicity

According to the Columbia Association, the property containing Oakland was originally surveyed in 1688, before Howard County was established. The 1,100-acre tract was part of upper Anne Arundel County and known as Felicity.

In 1810-1811, Charles Ridgely, then speaker of the House of Delegates and a future governor, built Oakland as a country home to supplement his residence in Baltimore. He was familiar with large estates such as Homewood in Baltimore, and he wanted a summer house of a similar caliber. To build it, he hired a carpenter, craftsman and "housewright" named Abraham Lerew.

According to Short, Lerew was familiar with the latest ideas in domestic architecture. Short said Lerew designed Oakland in the Neoclassical or Federal style popular at the time, with thick rubble stone walls covered with stucco, and symmetrical openings. The house had a double rear parlor and a large porch that opened to the south for entertaining. The grounds held a series of outbuildings, including a carriage house, stables, barns, a dog kennel and slave quarters.

In 1827, Ridgely sold Oakland for $47,000 to Robert Oliver, a wealthy merchant from Baltimore. The estate changed hands several times after that — it was looted by Union soldiers during the Civil War and later was home to a number of famous racehorses, including an early winner of theBelmont Stakes.

As time passed, owners made changes, including adding electricity and a large front porch and gardens. As a result, Oakland became a blend of the Federal, Greek Revival and Colonial Revival periods.

Over the years, the aging house became increasingly expensive to maintain as a residence. By the early 1960s, owner Rose Price had moved to a smaller building on the grounds and was operating the main house as a nursing home and spa.

The property was acquired in 1966 by an affiliate of the Howard Research and Development Corp., a joint venture of Rouse Co. and Connecticut General Life Insurance Co.

From the start, Kellner said, James Rouse saw potential in the buildings and decided to use them as part of the new community. He made Oakland a field office and satellite headquarters for the Baltimore-based Rouse Co.'s architects and planners working on the Columbia project.

'Snakes in the basement'

Kennedy said he remembers being impressed the first time he walked into Oakland.

"When I first came to Columbia, Jim Rouse invited me to go to a religious service upstairs. [The house] very clearly was in need of restoration. There were snakes in the basement," he said. "But it had great bones."

As Columbia took shape, Rouse tried to find other uses for Oakland. One of its outbuildings became the community's first post office. Another housed one of the first managers of Columbia.

In 1969, Oakland became a branch of Antioch College, Columbia's first institution of higher learning. Three years later, it became home to another, the Dag Hammarskjold College, named after a former secretary-general of the United Nations. The college drew notable lecturers, including anthropologist Margaret Mead, architect R. Buckminster Fuller and journalist Norman Cousins, but it left the building in 1974.

After a few years as the Howard County offices for the American Red Cross, the building was acquired in 1988 by the Columbia Association, which manages the unincorporated city of Columbia.

Kennedy embarked on a complete restoration, hiring Trostel & Pearre to guide the work. They restored it to its early Federal appearance while updating the mechanical systems.

Oakland reopened in 1989, and it now houses the management offices of the Town Center Community Association. The town center also uses it as a special event and community meeting space, welcoming thousands of visitors each year for meetings, dinners, weddings and other functions.

For many years, part of the second floor was occupied by the African Art Museum of Maryland, Columbia's first museum. The museum moved this summer to Maple Lawn, and the rooms are being renovated for more multipurpose meeting space. Meanwhile, many of the other buildings at Oakland have been sold to other owners, including the carriage house, now a church, and the old post office, which is a private residence.

Historians say Oakland seems well-positioned to last because of the owners it had and how they treated it.

"It had caretakers," Kellner said. "It survived in Columbia because it had owners who cared about preserving it. … Anything that survives, it seems, has someone who wanted it to survive."


Recommended on Baltimore Sun