Hard to Pronounce, Splendid to Behold


Liriodendron is another word for tulip poplar, the majestic trees with green and orange flowers that shade the 19th century mansion at the end of West Gordon Street in Bel Air.

If they'd simply called the place The Poplars or Tuliptrees, no one would have stumbled over the spelling and pronunciation, as has so often happened over the years. But that's the name that Dr. Howard A. Kelly originally gave to his estate that once embraced 196 acres of farmland just west of the small town's boundary.

The classical appellation, however, adds to its gracious appearance as the historic scene of weddings, concerts and receptions and as a gallery for local art exhibitions.

The art exhibition season opened earlier this month with a multi-media show of works by more than 40 Harford artists. "Figuratively Speaking" was the unexplained theme that drew a whimsical range of expressions in ceramics, pastels, wood and photographs. Open Sundays from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., the exhibit offers a delightful afternoon of casual browsing and an opportunity to explore this most impressive architectural gem amid a landscaped setting of shade trees and boxwoods.

The neo-Palladian style mansion was built as a summer home by Dr. Kelly, a famous surgeon and one of the "Big Four" physicians who established the medical prominence of the Johns Hopkins Hospital. Completed in 1898, Liriodendron was the home for much of the year for his wife and nine children, who returned to Baltimore to spend the colder months.

Now the property of the Harford County Department of Parks and Recreation, Liriodendron is open to the public for most of the year, although closing in the dead winter months of January and February.

Keeping the mansion in repair and adding to its turn of the century furnishings is the Liriodendron Foundation. This non-profit group of volunteers raises funds, supervises the work and arranges the acquisitions.

Two years ago, for example, the mansion was able to obtain the donation of two large German lithographs for the music room from the granddaughter of the former plumber and caretaker of the estate. She had inherited them from her father and, after holding her own wedding in the home, returned them to their old place in the house.

The foundation also schedules a busy slate of private receptions and public events at the mansion. Foundation offices are on the second floor of the mansion, where the Kellys kept seven bedroom suites arranged around a central atrium.

It was in response to the wishes of his Prussian-born wife that Dr. Kelly commissioned the white plaster, green-shuttered mansion to be built on a rise by the noted architect J. B. Noel Wyatt, whose designs dominated much of downtown Baltimore.

The T-shaped building, with elaborate Ionic columns framing the portico and large, elliptical shaded porches projecting from each side, was compared by local enthusiasts to the palatial Newport, R.I., summer homes of millionaires along Narragansett Bay.

Indeed, the imposing structure looks like something out of "The Great Gatsby." The ornate decoration and detailed attention given each room suggest that this was no mere summer retreat from the Kelly family's Eutaw Place residence in Baltimore. (A dedicated workaholic, Dr. Kelly would take the old Maryland and Pennsylvania Railroad out to Bel Air on summer weekends or the occasional free evening.)

The 79-foot entrance hallway is a statement of the spaciousness of the house, which was designed to withstand the oppression )) of Maryland summers before air conditioning. The high ceilings and extended porches were calculated to capture the breezes and hold the shade to keep the house cool for the season.

There were also two swimming pools the good doctor had built to cool off and entertain the family, the first in-ground pools constructed in Harford County. An arbor of colorful wisteria extended along the granite mosaic veranda in front of the main facade for further relief from the heat. The adjacent ice house was another refuge for the Kelly children.

The home was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. That year, Friedrich "Fritz" Kelly, a son, died and the estate passed to the county. Fritz had purchased the home from his parents in 1935, before they passed away in 1943.

He raised his own family there, using it for a school for problem youths for a time, and finally sold it to Harford County in 1972 while retaining a life tenancy in the grounds, which had been reduced to a little more than 100 acres. That land now makes up the eastern part of the county's Heavenly Waters Park, where Gordon Street runs into Liriodendron. (The rest of the park is located across Tollgate Road.)

The Maryland Historical Trust gave a $100,000 restoration grant to repair and refurbish the place in 1982. Since then, Liriodendron has continued to serve the community as a center of culture and celebration, and as a treasure for all Harford County.

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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