ST. LEONARD -- The point where the Patuxent River meets St. Leonard Creek is said to have more history per square foot than any other spot in Southern Maryland.
Just off the shoreline was the scene of one of the most improbable naval skirmishes in the War of 1812. The hastily assembled "Chesapeake Flotilla" led by Commodore Joshua Barney gallantly held off a British fleet on June 26, 1814, before later succumbing to the invasion.
Several hundred yards inland is the grave of Richard Smith, Maryland's first attorney general.
His resting spot is framed by 1930s-era farm buildings designed by Gertrude Sawyer, one of the first women admitted to the American Institute of Architects.
Around the grounds are more than 100 sites where archaeologists have unearthed Indian spearheads and other artifacts dating back 9,000 years.
On a site already so steeped in history of all kinds, Gov. William Donald Schaefer is about to make some more -- literally.
Tomorrow, he and other dignitaries will gather for a groundbreaking at the Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum, a 512-acre estate donated to Maryland in 1983. The ceremonies will start construction of the $3.2 million first phase of the $11.7 million Maryland Archaeological Conservation Facility and Museum Service Center.
When complete in 1995, the project will be a veritable history factory for the state -- a multi- faceted processing center where artifacts from throughout Maryland will be brought for research and conservation.
It's also the site where permanent and traveling museum exhibits will be prepared for display around the state.
"As the central repository for Maryland's archaeological collections, this facility will become the center for the exploration and study of 12,000 years of Maryland history," Mr. Schaefer said in a prepared statement. "It will be the finest facility of its kind on the Eastern seaboard."
In addition, the governor will break ground in the same area tomorrow for a $3 million estuarine research center, a 22,000-square-foot laboratory complex planned by the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia.
Scheduled for completion by July 1994, it will be the first permanent home for the academy's Chesapeake Bay laboratory and will employ a staff of 35 scientists with an annual payroll of $1.5 million.
The academy's laboratory has studied the Chesapeake Bay continuously for 30 years, exploring subjects such as the effects of acid rain and nutrients. The academy's Maryland staff will move from leased space in Benedict, in Charles County.
Also to come is a 35,000-square-foot, $8.5 million archaeological conservation lab and storage center that will process everything from paleo-Indian projectiles to Colonial-era shipwrecks. It will also be used to store up to 5 million artifacts previously housed in Annapolis at the old Hall of Records, a building the state recently sold to St. John's College.
"The goal is to get the collection in excellent condition so the artifacts are stable, readily accessible and available for loan to any one of the 220 history museums in Maryland," said Wayne Clark, executive director of the park and museum.
The construction activity is a sign that Mr. Schaefer is once again using his knack for capitalizing on the strengths of a particular place. In this case, his strategy is to turn a regional attraction into a statewide resource.
The project will help the local economy by creating more than 100 temporary construction jobs and several dozen permanent jobs.
It will also protect the history and buried treasures on this picturesque parcel -- itself something of a buried treasure -- from larger-scale development that might have ruined it.
One of the largest and most valuable parcels ever given to Maryland, Jefferson Patterson Park was the gift of Mary Marvin Breckinridge Patterson, granddaughter of tire magnate B. F. Goodrich and widow of Jefferson Patterson, a former U.S. foreign service officer and heir to the National Cash Register Corp. fortune.
Now 87, Mrs. Patterson donated the longtime cattle farm and its approximately 30 buildings with the stipulation that the state make good use of the gift.
The Maryland Historical Trust, a division of the state's Department of Housing and Community Development, has operated the property for the past nine years as a free public PTC attraction that now draws upward of 32,000 visitors from mid-April to mid-October.
The old "show barn" that Mr. Patterson built to show off his prize Aberdeen Angus cattle now houses the main museum space on the property, featuring exhibits on the Patuxent Indians, the Battle of St. Leonard Creek and other subjects with regional connections.
Land near the river has become the site of an archaeological dig in which researchers have unearthed foundations of the 17th-century port town of St. Leonard. And the grounds are used for a variety of festivals and events.
On June 6, the state will open a farm museum featuring "1,000 years of Maryland Agriculture."
"This property is a microcosm of Maryland, a little time capsule with a
whole range of Maryland history and prehistory," said Michael Smolek, deputy director of the park and museum.
Planning for the expansion began in 1989, when the state hired Ayers Saint Gross of Baltimore to design a master plan. Funds for the first phase of construction were approved last year, and a $3.1 million construction contract was awarded in March to Coakley and Williams Construction Co. of Greenbelt.
Plans call for the 16,000-square-foot Museum Service Center to be created by May 1994 inside eight wooden farm buildings overlooking the Patuxent River.
Three museums served
Dating from 1932, the buildings will be converted to functions related to the design and production of museum exhibits: carpentry, painting, silk-screening, graphics, administration and storage.
The facility will serve three museums: Jefferson Patterson in St. Leonard, Historic St. Mary's City in St. Mary's County and the Banneker Douglass Museum in Annapolis. Staffers will also provide technical assistance to any museum in Maryland and will prepare traveling exhibits for display around the state.
"This is a consolidation effort," Mr. Clark said. "Instead of having three duplicate facilities, the state decided to avoid redundancy and build one facility here to serve all three."
Architect Adam Gross said he believes the Museum Service Center is an ideal use for the farm buildings because they are already in a campus-like grouping and lend themselves to conversion for distinct uses.
They are also "some of the most beautiful buildings of that vernacular that exist anywhere in the Northeast," he said. "Gertrude Sawyer lived on the property while they were being constructed and drew from the architectural history of that part of the state. When we went down to see them for the first time, we were just blown away."
Mr. Clark said the Maryland Historical Trust will seek funding from the state legislature next spring for construction of the 32,000-square-foot archaeological center, which will include a conservation laboratory, paleo-environmental laboratory, library, collections storage, computer/records rooms and a public meeting room for workshops and classes for curators.
This second phase will consist of a series of new buildings around a courtyard, designed to be compatible with the Sawyer buildings. If funds are approved by the General Assembly in 1994, Mr. Clark said, construction would begin at midyear and be complete by late 1995.
The conservation lab will also allow marine archaeologists for the first time to study some of the 6,000 documented shipwrecks in Maryland waters. Mr. Clark said no shipwrecks will be raised until the state has the technology and staff in place to handle them properly.
He said he wants to salvage vessels such as Joshua Barney's gunboats, which were made in Baltimore and deliberately sunk near the head of the Patuxent River so they wouldn't fall into British hands.
"We'd love to bring them up and put them on display in Baltimore, where they were built," he said. "Then the circle would be complete."