From the outside, Belmont Manor and Historic Park in Elkridge hasn't changed much.
The 68-acre estate is still home to the Georgian-style, stucco-on-brick manor house, built by Caleb Dorsey in 1738. It still has intricate gardens and rolling hills as far as the eye can see. But the house and its surrounding property are subtly evolving.
For the first time in its almost 300-year history, Belmont is hosting public environmental and preservation programs.
The Woodstock-based Howard County Conservancy began offering programs at the new Belmont Nature Center in May and will continue to do so year-round, says Meg Schumacher Boyd, the conservancy's executive director.
"It's an expansion of our environmental programs to the eastern side of the county," she says.
The Dorsey family and its descendants owned Belmont until the 1960s, when family members gave it to the Smithsonian Institute. Through the years, ownership changed several times. The American Chemical Society owned and used the estate as a meeting center in the 1980s and 1990s. In 2004, Howard Community College bought the property and used it for hospitality classes. Then in 2012, Howard County government bought the property for public use.
The county's Department of Recreation and Parks chose the Howard County Conservancy to provide environmental education programs at Belmont. And on May 4, the conservancy gave visitors a glimpse of those programs.
Visitors learned about the property's history, native wildlife, trees and iron forges, previously located around Belmont along the Patapsco River. The center includes a children's play and educational area and a mural of the Patapsco River Valley painted by Esben Jepsen, a senior at Centennial High School. It is also home to a red corn snake and a diamondback terrapin — both in enclosed tanks.
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The nature center is inside the estate's Carriage House and is open to the public the third Saturday of each month from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday programs range from a "Creepy Creatures" talk to a Belmont History Hike with Fred Dorsey, president of Preservation Howard County and descendant of Belmont's original owners.
"The plans that they have and the vision they have is going to breathe new life not into just the Carriage House, but the whole property," Dorsey says.
The nature center will also open for scheduled events, including field trips, summer camps and a September BioBlitz, where students from area schools will catalog every living thing they find on the estate.
This fall, the county plans to open the manor house as a conference center and location for social events like weddings and concerts, says John Byrd, Recreation and Parks director.
In the meantime, residents say they are thrilled to have the conservancy on site.
"I think this is great," says Stephanie Greisman of Elkridge. "The conservancy offers so much to everybody. And Belmont is a hidden gem. It will definitely enrich the community."
The Belmont Nature Center
6553 Belmont Woods Road, Elkridge