Hampton National Historic Site, in the Hampton area north of Towson, Baltimore County, Maryland, USA, preserves a remnant of a vast 18th-century estate, including a Georgian manor house, gardens, grounds, and the original stone slave quarters. The estate was owned by the Ridgely family for seven generations, from 1745 to 1948. The Hampton Mansion was the largest private home in America when it was completed in 1790 and today is considered to be one of the finest examples of Georgian architecture in the U.S. Its furnishings, together with the estate’s slave quarters and other preserved structures, provide insight into the life of late 18th-century and early 19th-century landowning aristocracy.
Hampton National Historic Site, a National Park Service property established in 1948, was the first national park designated for its architectural merit. Located in Baltimore County, Maryland, the site was once part of a vast agricultural, industrial, and commercial empire that reached 25,000 acres at its zenith. Today, the site preserves 63 acres that were once occupied by seven generations of the Ridgely family and their large and diverse labor force. The grounds were widely admired in the 19th century for their elaborate parterres or formal gardens, which have been restored to resemble their appearance during the 1820s. Several trees are more than 200 years old. In addition to the mansion and grounds, visitors may tour the overseer’s house and slave quarters.
One of the country’s best preserved estates, Hampton NHS today contains the core of the estate largely intact. The centerpiece of the site is Hampton Mansion, built 1783-1790 primarily to serve as a summer home. This premier example of Georgian architecture may have been the largest private residence in the United States when completed. The site also features numerous historic outbuildings including stables, greenhouses, and an ice house; a farm site with an overseer’s house (c. 1745), barns, an elaborate dairy, and standing slave quarters; and formal terraced gardens and other landscape features including several state champion trees.
Hampton NHS’s vast and diverse museum collection of 45,000 objects ranges from archeological artifacts to archives and photographs, great works of art to items of everyday life, reflecting major phases of American social, cultural, and economic history from the mid-18th to the mid-20th centuries. Over 90% of the objects on view at Hampton are original to the estate, and each room of the mansion is furnished to a different era. Tours of the mansion tell the engaging story of entrepreneurs, indentured servants, slaves, and the changing face of America.
Hampton NHS’s numerous assets and the extensive related documentation make it a resource of major significance to its local community, the state of Maryland, and the nation.
Most people today know Hampton as a sedate Georgian mansion, elegantly furnished and settled amid gardens and shade trees. Built as a country seat just after the Revolutionary War by a prominent Maryland family, the house and its immediate surroundings are just a remnant of the Hampton estate of the early 1800s.
Take a moment to stand at an upstairs window and look out over the lawns, suburban houses, and woodlands. In its heyday Hampton covered this land and more; Ridgely property equaled half the area of present-day Baltimore, land that made its owners rich through iron production, agriculture, and investments. Hampton is the story of a family business, early American industry, and commerce, the cultural tastes of the times, the deprivations of war, and the economic and moral changes that finally made this kind of life obsolete.
Most importantly, Hampton is the story of its people. Scenes from Hampton’s past include a colonial merchant shipper amassing thousands of acres of property along Maryland’s Chesapeake shore; indentured servants casting molten iron into cannons and ammunition for the Revolutionary army; enslaved people loading barrels of grain, iron, and timber onto merchant ships bound for Europe that would return with fine wines and luxury goods.
Later scenes show a powerful businessman and politician well-known as “a very gentell man…said to keep the best table in America”,; a teenaged girl making a list of Christmas gifts to her father’s slaves, carefully noting full names, births, and deaths; 20th century descendants hoping to keep the estate in the family by selling off parcels of land, opening a dairy supplying milk to local schools, and pressing apples into cider.
Today, as you explore Hampton, keep these people in mind. A wealth of artifacts and scenery recreates a world where, for the better part of three centuries, a community of hundreds of individuals played out the comedies and dramas of their own lives against the backdrop of America’s development as a nation.
The property was originally part of the Northampton land grant given to Col. Henry Darnall (c. 1645–1711), a relative of Lord Baltimore, in 1695. His heirs sold the land on April 2, 1745, to Col. Charles Ridgely (1702–72), a tobacco farmer and trader. The bill of sale records that the property included “… houses, tobacco houses (tobacco barns), stables, gardens, and orchards.”
By the late 1750s, Hampton extended to more than 10,000 acres (4,000 ha) and included an ironworks. His son, Capt. Charles Ridgely (1733–90), expanded the family business considerably to include gristmills, apple orchards, and stone quarries. During the American Revolutionary War, the ironworks was a significant source of income for the Ridgelys, producing cannons and ammunition for the Continental Army. In 1783, Capt. Ridgely began construction of the main house, Hampton Mansion. He said its concept was inspired by Castle Howard in England, owned by relatives of his mother. When it was completed in 1790, the Hampton Mansion was the largest private home in the United States.
When Capt. Ridgely died that same year, his nephew, Charles Carnan Ridgely (1760–1829), became the second master of Hampton. He had 10,590 feet (3,228 m) of irrigation pipes laid in 1799 from a nearby spring to provide water to the Mansion and the surrounding gardens, which he was extensively developing. Prominent artisans of the time were hired to design geometric formal gardens, which were planted on the Mansion’s grounds between 1799 and 1801. An avid horseman, Charles Carnan also began raising Thoroughbred horses at Hampton, where he had a racetrack installed. A 1799 advertisement promoted the stud services of his racehorse, Grey Medley. Another of Ridgely’s racehorses, Post Boy, won the Washington City Jockey Club cup.
Under Charles Carnan Ridgely, Hampton reached its peak of 25,000 acres (10,117 ha) in the 1820s. The mansion overlooked a grand estate of orchards, ironworks, coal mining, marble quarries, mills, and mercantile interests. The vast farm produced corn, beef cattle, dairy products, hogs, and horses. More than 300 slaves worked the fields and served the household, making Hampton one of Maryland’s largest slaveholding estates. Six parterres were designed on three terraced levels facing the mansion, planted with roses, peonies, and seasonal flowers. In 1820, an orangery was built on the grounds.
Charles Carnan Ridgely frequently entertained prominent guests in the Mansion’s 51 ft. x 21 ft. (16 m by 6.4 m) Great Hall, such as Charles Carroll of Carrollton, who was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and Revolutionary War general, the Marquis de Lafayette. Charles Carnan served as governor of Maryland between 1816–19. When Governor Ridgely died in 1829, he freed Hampton’s slaves in his will.
The Hampton estate was split among various heirs, with his son, John Carnan Ridgely (1790–1867), inheriting the mansion and 4,500 acres (18 km2). The ironworks closed and thereafter the Ridgelys’ income was primarily derived from farming, investments, and their stone quarries. John Carnan added plumbing, heating, and gas lighting to the mansion.
Eliza Ridgely (1803–67), John’s wife and the subject of Thomas Sully’s famous portrait, Lady with a Harp, purchased many artworks and furnishings for the mansion. She was a noted horticulturist and had successively larger and more elaborate gardens cultivated on the grounds, with a large variety of flowers and shrubs grown in the estate’s greenhouses and tended by some of the 60 slaves purchased by John Carnan Ridgely. By the mid-19th century, the Hampton estate had one of the most extensive collections of citrus trees in the U.S., along with various exotic trees and plants gathered by Eliza Ridgely during her frequent travels to Europe and the Orient. In the warm months, the potted citrus plants were brought outside and arranged around the terraced gardens, then taken into the heated orangery during the winter. She had one section of the garden planted with colorful red, yellow, pink, and maroon coleus from Asia. In 1859, Hampton’s fame for lavish style was such that the author of a book on landscaping wrote, “It has been truly said of Hampton that it expresses more grandeur than any other place in America”.
In January 1861, shortly after the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States, Charles Ridgely (the son of John Carnan and Eliza Ridgely) formed the pro-Confederate Baltimore County Horse Guards at Hampton with himself as captain of the militia unit that he described as “states’ rights gentlemen.” One of his militia’s cavalry men, Lieut. John Merryman, was subsequently arrested by the Union Army and imprisoned in May 1861 on a charge of treason, sparking the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case, Ex parte Merryman. As the Civil War raged across the farmlands of Maryland and Pennsylvania at the Battle of Antietam (1862) and the Battle of Gettysburg (1863), the Ridgelys’ Hampton estate remained untouched.
Although Maryland, as a border state, was exempted from Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the Maryland General Assembly eliminated slavery in 1864. With the end of slavery, Hampton began to decline. A number of the former slaves continued to work at Hampton as paid household servants but the Ridgelys had to hire other hands to work the farm. With the deaths of John and Eliza in 1867, their son Charles became the next master of Hampton. The mansion and the remaining 1,000 acres (4.0 km2) were subsequently inherited upon Charles’ death in 1872 by Captain John Ridgely (1851–1938). Prominent guests, including Theodore Roosevelt, continued to visit Hampton and enjoy its grounds.
As nearby Baltimore grew and local agriculture declined, the Ridgelys found it increasingly difficult to maintain the property. Five of the six parterres were removed and replanted as a grass lawn. Some income was generated by producing cider from the estate’s apple orchards and operating a dairy. In 1929, Capt. John Ridgely and his son, John Ridgely Jr., formed the Hampton Development Corporation and sold some of the remaining 1,000 acres (405 ha) of land. In 1938, John Ridgely, Jr. (1882–1959) became the sixth generation of the family to become master of Hampton. His company sold off large portions of the estate to a suburban housing development in the 1930s and 1940s, now known as the fashionable Hampton residential community.
The Hampton Mansion remained in the Ridgely family until 1948, when John Ridgely Jr. moved to the smaller Farm House on the property and the Mansion was acquired by the Avalon Foundation (now part of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation). The seventh and last generation of Ridgelys to live at the mansion was his son, John Ridgely III (1911–90), who, after marrying Lillian Ketchum (1908–96) in the mid-1930s, continued to reside at the mansion with his wife until they both entered Army service during World War II.
The Hampton Mansion and remaining 43 acres (17 ha) of the Ridgely estate were designated a National Historic Site by the Secretary of the Interior on June 22, 1948—the first site to be so selected on the basis of its historical significance and “outstanding merit as an architectural monument”. Hampton Mansion was opened to the public in May 1949 under the care of Preservation Maryland for the next thirty years (1949–79). Work also began in 1949 to restore four of the site’s six 19th-century parterres. On October 15, 1966, Hampton was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In October 1979, it was acquired by the National Park Service (NPS), which has operated and managed the estate since. The NPS subsequently acquired additional acreage containing original Ridgely structures, bringing the park to its present 62.04 acres (25.11 ha) size. In 1998, the NPS stated its purpose for the historic site:
…to preserve unimpaired the cultural resources of this rare, commercial, industrial, and agricultural estate in the historic Chesapeake region. National events and social change are revealed in the site’s resources and the inter-relationships of the family and workers who lived and labored on the estate as it took shape and changed in the 18th and 19th centuries.
As part of the General Management Plan adopted by the NPS in 1998 for the estate’s long-term planning and operation, the NPS began studying the mansion’s security, safety, electrical systems, and environmental issues in 2000. Critical needs were identified, such as the lack of a fire suppression system and climate control. Conservators of the property’s furnishings and paintings said that the need to stabilize temperature and humidity levels inside the mansion was “urgent due to unacceptable environmental stress”. The NPS finalized plans in 2004, including an environmental impact assessment, for installation of a modern HVAC system and a concealed fire sprinkler system to protect the historic mansion and its irreplaceable contents from loss by fire.
Starting in January 2005, the mansion closed for almost three years as it underwent the major restoration project. As part of the 2005–07 renovations, the drawing room and two bedchambers were completely refurbished. The drawing room’s furnishings were extensively researched to reflect accurately the Mansion in the 1830–60 period. The ornate cupola atop the mansion was restored, including the spherical ornament above the cupola, which was refinished in gold leaf. The Hampton Mansion re-opened to the public on November 30, 2007.
The Park Service’s chief ranger for the Hampton National Historic Site said afterwards of the $3 million in renovations, “I don’t think the mansion has ever looked better”. “Preservation Maryland”, a statewide preservation advocacy organization, conferred its Stewardship Award in 2007 on the Hampton National Historic Site for refurnishing the mansion’s rooms with historical accuracy while unobtrusively installing the fire suppression and climate control systems.
The Tea Room controversy
When the Hampton estate first opened to the public in 1949, the mansion’s kitchen was converted into a small restaurant. Known as the Tea Room, it was operated by a concessionaire for the next 50 years, serving lunches featuring Hampton Imperial Crab (backfin lump meat from the blue crab, baked and seasoned with spices) and other Chesapeake Bay seafood delicacies, served with a glass of sherry. A local newspaper columnist described the Tea Room as “offering gentility … a fireplace nearly as big as a wall and mullioned windows with sills that are nearly 2 feet (0.61 m) thick. The view is rolling lawns…”
When the Tea Room was closed by the National Park Service on January 1, 1999, officials said they did so because of the potential fire hazard posed by operating a kitchen in the main park building and the possibility of insect or rodent damage to historic items in the mansion, as stated in the General Management Plan adopted by the NPS the previous year. While it “may be a pleasant place to enjoy a meal… that is clearly less important than the need to preserve Hampton’s buildings, objects and landscapes for future generations,” the Park Service stated. Officials of Preservation Maryland said they were “disappointed” by the restaurant’s closure, saying it helped attract visitors to the historic site. The former chairwoman of the Hampton women’s committee—which raises money for various projects at Hampton—also criticized the decision. Since 2006, the women’s group has renewed efforts to have the Tea Room reopened, saying it would draw more visitors and repeat business from locals to the park. A Park Service spokesman was quoted as saying in October, 2006, that “The mansion is not going to be the site of any food operation,” but has made no further comment since then.
Hampton’s museum collection is a remarkable one. It includes some 60,000 objects ranging from valuable high style furniture and fine art to a rusty coffee can, with lots in between.
The historic site also holds a rich documentary record of the Ridgely family, described on the Archives page.
Interest in physical fitness has waxed and waned through our history. Dumbbells were used by the Ridgelys in the late 1800s.
All but a handful of these objects were purchased by the Ridgely family and used in the house, making it truly a glimpse into the tastes, values, and activities of one Maryland family through the years.
The mid-Atlantic region boasts many terraced gardens. Hampton’s is one of the biggest and best.
The landscape is a rare surviving ensemble from a late ante-bellum slave estate. Six state champion trees, a huge terraced garden, and over twenty buildings, including slave quarters give visitors a glimpse of the layout of a great slave estate. This material culture reveals the non material culture of those who designed it, built it, and lived and died in it.
Members of the Ridgely family left rich documentary evidence of their lives at Hampton Mansion and in the world beyond. These primary sources provide direct evidence of the past and have allowed visitors to Hampton to gain a deeper and more accurate understanding of the site’s history. The unique and unpublished documents include correspondence, diaries, scrapbooks, photographs, and legal and financial documents. The documents are dispersed in multiple collections at several institutions. In-depth research will require visits to all major repositories.
Some of the collections are housed on-site at Hampton. The Maryland Historical Society and the Maryland State Archives hold the bulk of the family collections, acquired before the Archives at Hampton was established.
A Comprehensive Guide to Collections (1664-1990) brings together all known collections and items in a single index. In addition to the major repositories listed above, it includes collections and individual items held by Johns Hopkins University, Yale University, University of Michigan, and Duke University.