For a few hours Saturday, Elkridge's historic Belmont Manor came alive.
Visitors played bocce in the yard and wandered the many halls and chambers of the nearly 300-year-old mansion, which has been used only sporadically since it was purchased by Howard County in 2012.
That's about to change: after nearly three years of restoration work, the house and historic park are re-opening as a center for conferences, events and retreats.
"It's hard to not just smile from cheek to cheek knowing this is in Howard County's hands – this is in the people's hands – forever," County Executive Allan Kittleman said before a ribbon-cutting April 11.
Belmont Manor was built in 1738 by Caleb Dorsey, and it remained a private residence for more than two centuries before being donated to the Smithsonian Institution, which used the estate as a conference center from the mid-1960s until 1983, when it was sold to the American Chemical Society. Howard Community College bought the property in 2004, and held hospitality classes there until late 2010.
Howard County purchased Belmont in June 2012 for $2.7 million. Ken Ulman, who was county executive at the time, returned Saturday for the manor's opening.
"This is an unbelievable gem of a property," Ulman said. "I think the one piece that was lacking before was public access."
In addition to rentals, the property will also be host to environmental education programs from the Howard County Conservancy.
It's been a longer road to reopening than expected: The year and a half the old mansion sat on the market did some damage, according to John Byrd, director of the county's Recreation and Parks department. Though officials initially hoped to restore the property by mid-2013, unforeseen obstacles quickly piled up.
"You can't anticipate what you're going to uncover when you start poking into a rotting wall," Byrd said. Restoration workers dealt with lead paint, asbestos and an overgrowth of vines in the garden, among other challenges, he said.
The house's kitchen is still being renovated, a process that will take about four months, according to county spokesman Mark Miller. A pool house, smoke house and pump house on the property are also being restored and should be open in June.
Belmont is already in high demand for events, Miller said: the property has 95 events on the calendar over the next year and half, and it's fully booked on weekends for the rest of 2015.
Lesley Dunlap, of Pikesville, and her fiance Carlos Herring will be married at Belmont in August. The couple came to Saturday's opening to start to envision the logistics of their big day.
Dunlap said she found a great deal when she stumbled upon Belmont in her search for a wedding venue. The rental includes the house and grounds.
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She and Herring visited the manor for the first time in December. "The weather was terrible, very foggy, but this place was gorgeous," she said.