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Perry Hall Mansion shuttered while updates considered

Northeast Booster Reporter

Sean Kief still has warm memories of some of his beloved maternal grandmother's stories of her famous birthplace — the Perry Hall Mansion.

Other tales that Myrl Dunty told her grandson about her home were, in his words, "horrifying."

Her description of a dank and dark second cellar — below the basement level — sent shudders through the youngster.

"She said the lower basement had chains on the wall," he said about the shackles that were stark vestiges from slavery days more than 50 years before her birth in 1915.

"A lot of that was burned into my mind, and I just imagined what it was like. I never saw the chains, but we have eyewitness accounts that they were there. There also was a whipping post. They are long gone now, and have been since the 1950s. Nobody seems to know what happened to them."

Kief, 43, a Parkville High grad who co-authored a book about the mansion with Jeffrey Smith two years ago, is front and center about both the positive and negative legacies of the circa-1775 building that Baltimore merchant Harry Dorsey Gough named after a family castle near Birmingham, England.

"It was so close to where I grew up (in Fullerton)," Kief said about the plantation that had separate slave quarters and a jail for slaves as well.

Although Kief's family ties to the landmark ended a couple of months after his grandmother's birth when the Dunty family sold the property and moved close by, his interest in the historical significance of one of the last remaining colonial homes in Maryland has only grown over the years.

His grandmother, who married Albert C. Smith in 1933 and had five children, would go on to become the local postmaster for 700 families in 1959, when it was a rarity for a woman to hold such a position. Myrl M. Smith remained in the area until her death in 1993.

The site of that post office where she worked for so long, just north of where Joppa and Ebeneezer roads intersect with Belair Road, is now home to a McDonald's.

Still, Kief's interest in the mansion is because he is directly related to one of the 13 families to own the estate after merchant Gough bought the original 1,129-acre tract in 1774 from Corbin Lee, an ancestor of Robert E. Lee.

Gough completed what Corbin Lee had started, finishing the construction of one of the most impressive homes in Maryland shortly before the Revolutionary War began.

In its colonial heyday, the 20-room brick structure covered in white stucco boasted 4 full acres of gardens, extensive peach orchards, a cellar expansive enough to welcome ox carts loaded with heavy casks of wine, a kitchen almost as big as most drawing rooms, a great hall, a grand ballroom with crystal chandeliers, a library, drawing room, spiral staircase and five bedrooms.

In addition, three servants quarters were situated in the attic. In one of those rooms, Kief's great-grandfather trained pigeons.

Kief, a photographer for the Department of Defense, said that Gough was a renowned cattle breeder, and was contacted by George Washington to buy a calf, although the transaction was never completed.

In 1839, a fire changed the building's profile in that after the blaze, Henry Gough's grandson decided to rebuild the entire west wing while adding a second story rather than reprising the charred east wing.

The Gough family lived on the property until 1852, after which a succession of owners, including the Duntys, kept it in private hands until Baltimore County bought it from the Mele family for $335,000 in 2001. The original plan was that the building would be "used for small-scale community events," according to an article in The Baltimore Sun. The article went on to say that "early plans to convert the mansion to a banquet facility to be used for weddings and other events were scrapped because of community concerns about increased traffic and noise."

In the ensuing 15 years, the hard work of the nonprofit Historic Perry Hall Mansion Inc., which was in charge of removing tons of debris from the 4 acres left of the original property, has been to educate the public about the mansion and work in concert with Baltimore County Parks and Recreation Department to preserve the now-shuttered building.

Baltimore County Councilman David Marks said that after the county spent nearly $1 million more by 2009 to make repairs to the building, including new plumbing, electrical, and heating and air conditioning, that "saved its life, the structure has largely remained dormant."

After receiving donations and pledges from area business, including the Women's Club of Perry Hall and the Shelter Group, the parent company of Brightview Perry Hall senior living community, an effort to save and restore the building was moving forward until a major stumbling block brought the process to a standstill.

While the Historic Perry Hall Mansion organization has approximately $60,000 on hand, the money is well short of a projected $400,000 needed to install a 50-yard sewer line extension.

"There was a sewer line in the area, but it didn't go into the master line," said Marks, a former president of the Perry Hall Improvement Association, whose council district stretches from Towson to Perry Hall. "We're trying to figure out how to pay for it. Once that happens, I believe the best option is to see if a nonprofit entity, like Historic Perry Hall Mansion, can lease and eventually purchase the property."

With the water to the property turned off, the costs to the county are minimal. Marks doesn't expect anymore county funding to be spent on the mansion at this point. "I suspect the remaining expenses, mostly interior work, will be privately funded," he said.

In the meantime, without a lengthened sewer line, the house is unusable, and unlikely to be sold or leased.

That's why Marks, Kief and other preservationists are hoping that the sale of an adjacent vacant house will make it easier to hook into that sewer line at a much lower cost.

Until then, all they can do is wait and hope that the 240-year-old piece of American history will someday be restored to its original stature.

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