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Retro HoCo: When Smithsonian Institution was steward of Belmont Manor

Elkridge's Belmont in 1980, when it was owned by the Smithsonian Institution.
Elkridge's Belmont in 1980, when it was owned by the Smithsonian Institution. (William G. Hotz Sr. / Baltimore Sun files)

Who knew the Smithsonian Institution was once one of Howard County’s premier landowners?

In 1964, the world-famous museum and history repository paid $500,000 for Belmont, the 25-room 18th-century Elkridge estate sitting on 339 acres “of undulating meadow and woodland, with only a faint rumble in the distance to herald the approach of Sluburbia,” as described by columnist Meryle Secrest in the Washington Post of Dec. 31, 1967.

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Work on the house had begun in 1738; it was built by ironmaster Caleb Dorsey Jr., whose descendants would remain on the property for more than 200 years. By the 1960s, Belmont was owned by David K.E. Bruce, who in a decades-long career as an American diplomat headed embassies in France, West Germany, Britain and China. It was he who decided the Smithsonian would make a good steward for the place — even if the D.C.-based museum’s plans were, at least initially, hard to ascertain.

“The country retreat certainly promises to be a fine place for a company of scholars to get together,” reporter Jean M. White wrote in the Washington Post on July 11, 1964. Smithsonian Director S. Dillon Ripley, an ornithologist, “even can get in some bird watching,” White speculated.

In 1983, the Smithsonian sold Belmont to the American Chemical Society, which paid $800,000 for the house and 82 acres. In 2004, the house was purchased by Howard Community College for $5.2 million. Howard County purchased Belmont from the college in 2012 for $2.7 million and now rents it out for weddings and other events, including regularly scheduled ghost-tracking programs (the next is set for Feb. 19).

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