Historic Blandair getting upgrade

The Baltimore Sun

The solid wood beams supporting the new pale green metal roof over the late Nancy Smith's 19th-century Blandair mansion in east Columbia are better than new.

"White oak will just last forever, if it's old timber," said Chris McGuigan, the National Park Service's project manager on the $1.6 million restoration project - the first phase of a $14 million project to convert the overgrown farm into a park.

That's why the Park Service used wood from old barns - white oak and pine that came from old-growth trees. The naturally grown wood has to compete in a forest for light, space and water, and thereby grows stronger and more pest resistant, McGuigan said. Commercially grown trees add girth quickly, but are not as strong.

"Because of the way it was grown, it will give you substantially longer life," he added, surveying a year's worth of masonry and roof work on the exterior of the brick house that dates to 1857.

McGuigan's specialists, including Louis Browne and college interns Hillary Lennox and Tara Hrynik, were taking down scaffolding outside the building to prepare for final masonry work along the lower walls and for reinstalling the restored windows.

The mansion-restorers are going for authentic details wherever possible, including period replacement window glass imported from Germany and linseed-oil-based window glaze from the Netherlands. Modern window glaze is designed for metal windows, McGuigan said, and would turn brittle and deteriorate on a wood sash.

The mansion renovation, supervised by the Maryland Historical Trust, is the first step toward converting the neglected farm into the large park - with portions on both sides of Route 175 - that the state and county envisioned when they paid $10.7 million for the land in 1998.

A decade has passed since the death of Smith, the reclusive final human inhabitant of the big house on a 300-acre farm that her father bought in 1937. She deeply resented being surrounded by Columbia, James W. Rouse's planned town, and was so angered by the state taking 14 acres of the farm to build Route 175 through her land that she reportedly never cashed the payment check.

In recent years, birds, mice, raccoons, snakes and foxes have used the decaying house and its outbuildings, and a giant blue container outside the building is filled with Smith's belongings. Inside the house, a collection of old wheat germ, coffee and pickle jars sits in a dusty upstairs room, along with Tetley tea-bag cans and an old bird cage.

Slowly, painstakingly, the National Park Service is reversing the damage.

"There was a great deal more structural damage to the roof than we expected," McGuigan said, though historic renovations always contain an element of unpredictability.

Although the masonry and roof work began more than a year ago, county officials say completion of the mansion project and the start of development of the park's land are several years away.

McGuigan said the exterior work should be completed by late October, and interior work, beginning with upgraded electrical, heating and cooling systems, should begin next spring.

Gary J. Arthur, the county recreation and parks director, said the county has $375,000 in transfer-tax revenue that can be used to restore a seed barn, a stone tenant house and seven other outbuildings.

"Historic preservation and restoration is a slow process," Arthur said. "We think we have the best contractor we can get."

The county plans to hire a consultant by Labor Day who will begin another round of public meetings this fall to complete plans for the parkland, Arthur said. Although some people want the entire 300 acres preserved in a natural state, plans include athletic fields on the land south of Route 175, with paths and facilities on the north side. Arthur hopes to eventually see a pedestrian and bicycle bridge over the state roadway.

The park's development will be in four or five phases, Arthur said, reaching completion by 2012 if funding is provided.

All of the mansion's windows are being restored in the Park Service's Frederick workshop. There, old paint that is 49 percent lead is being stripped. The window frames have been restored and repainted, and the windows will go back up by October. Each frame has a small section of original paint under the new layer, McGuigan said, so that it will be available for any future restorations.

McGuigan said his crew will rebuild a small porch over the front entrance of the house, though a larger porch that once stood in the back might not reappear.

"We have no pictures of it," he said, though archaeological research shows it was there.

"It was a sleeping porch," he added, which residents would use on hot summer nights.


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