Supporting the “Palace in the Wilderness”

March 6, 2017Madeleine BienPartner Stories
National Park Service
A look at the work of Historic Hampton, Inc.

Located just 20 minutes outside of Baltimore, MD stands the only unit of the National Park Service that was established for its “outstanding merit as an architectural monument,” rather than connection to a person or event. The mansion at Hampton National Historic Site, built by the Ridgley family between 1783 and 1790, stands today as a shining example of Georgian architecture in the United States.

Its rich history presents the intersecting stories of the Ridgelys, a prominent family at the dawn of a new nation, and the laborers who made their enterprises successful and their lavish lifestyle possible. From iron production and shipping, to an expansive and diverse agricultural enterprise, the Ridgely estate employed a vast labor force composed of indentured servants and enslaved African Americans. At Hampton National Historic Site visitors can see the places where these men and women worked and lived.

Families and reenactors outside with a group playing music and peopl shucking corn on the grounds of National Historic Park
National Park Service

Not only is the mansion a prime American example of late-Georgian architecture, but it is also one of the largest. A journalist once noted that, “The country-people soon saw with amazement what was to them a palace rising in the wilderness…They called it ‘Ridgley’s Folly.’” The estate was a symbol of wealth and extravagance not typically found in the rural colonies, though the family took great pride in the region’s success, filling their drawing room with furniture made from the best artisans in Baltimore.

Since 1979, Historic Hampton, Inc. has served as the primary philanthropic partner of Hampton National Historic Site and provides financial, preservation, and volunteer support to the mansion, gardens, and the various outbuildings, including the original slave quarters.

In honor of Women's History Month, on March 12 at 2 p.m., Hampton National Historic Site Curator Gregory Weidman will present a program on the lives of the accomplished women of the Ridgely family from the late 18th to the mid-20th century. Whether they were abolitionists or artists, missionaries or horticulturists, enslaved or world travelers, authors or Lieutenants in the Army, their stories cover a fascinating range of American and local history. On March 26 at 2 p.m., master storytellers of the Griots’ Circle of Maryland will present a soul stirring tribute to some remarkable African-American women in a program entitled, “The Mothers of Movements in U.S. History.”

Looking up a white spiral staircase surrounded by white walls that leads up to the cupola at Hampton National Historic Site

Stairs leading up to the mansion cupola.

National Park Service

Additionally, Historic Hampton, Inc. is raising funds to support two important projects. The first is the restoration of the 18th century mansion cupola, the architectural feature which stands as the symbol of Hampton. Aging and deteriorating materials have led to leaking and some damage to the historic building and significant collections stored on the second and third floors of the mansion could be in harm’s way. With a generous grant from the Middendorf Foundation, an in-depth condition assessment will be conducted to determine the appropriate path for restoration.

Painting of Eliza Ridgely in a floor-length white dress standing next to her full-sized harp

Eliza Ridgely with her harp

National Park Service

Historic Hampton, Inc. is also working to save a national treasure in the collection: the rare and historic harp made in 1817 by Sebastian Erard in London for Eliza Eichelberger Ridgely (1803-1867). The harp came to Hampton in 1828 when Eliza married John Ridgely (1790-1867), the estate’s third owner. Eliza’s harp is significant because it was built only seven years after Erard first patented the innovative double-action pedal mechanism. It is one of the oldest double-action pedal harps in a museum in the United States, and is still exhibited in Hampton Mansion in the music room. 2017 is the 200th anniversary of Eliza’s harp and Historic Hampton, Inc. is working to ensure its survival for centuries to come.

To learn more about Historic Hampton, Inc.’s programs and events, or to support its important work, visit the group’s website and follow along on Facebook and Twitter.

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