Best. Tour. Ever.
I suppose I should qualify that with “that I can remember” or “of a historic site,” since I’ve seen hundreds of historic sites and taken just as many tours. But until I remember something else, the tour of Hampton National Historic Park was absolutely at the top. I just finished a whirlwind week through Virginia and Maryland that included 8 historic sites (all of which you’ll be hearing about in the next month or so), and not Jefferson’s Monticello, nor Madison’s Montpelier beat Hampton’s tour.
Hampton was built by American Revolutionary War profiteer Charles Ridgely, an astute businessman who made a fortune in milling, quarries and iron works. Hampton, just a few miles north of Baltimore, was his summer home. At the time it was completed, in 1790, it was the largest private home in America.
What was so great about the Hampton tour? A combination of my favorite things:
1. Original objects. About 90% of Hampton’s furnishings are original to the house. The Ridgelys were the only family to live there, so much of their furniture remained through the years. The National Park Service, which now owns Hampton, has even managed to buy back some of the objects that the family sold when their fortunes went into decline, in the early 20th century.
J.P Morgan bought their madiera collection for $5000. That didn’t come back.
A Thomas Sully portrait of Eliza Ridgely, famously known as “the Lady with the Harp,” was sold to the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC in 1945. Eliza was the wife of the Civil War era master of Hampton and the portrait was painted in 1818 when she was 15. That didn’t come back, either. The picture, below, in the great hall of the house, is a copy.
After buying the picture, the director of the National Gallery of Art became interested in the preservation of Hampton, and convinced the Avalon Foundation (now part of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation) to buy it. The foundation, in turn, gave it to the National Park Service in 1948. The last occupant of the house was the seventh generation of Ridgely, John Ridgely III, in the late 1930s.
2. A well-documented and balanced narrative. Both the good and the bad were presented in Hampton’s story. The second master of Hampton, also Charles Ridgely, freed all of his slaves in his will. His son, John Ridgely, bought more. There were about 350 slaves at Hampton in John’s day and he was known to be a particularly cruel master. Seventy-five of them ran away. A doctor who was called to tend to a Ridgely slave wrote that he was appalled at the conditions in which John kept them.
House slaves recognized the ring of each room’s bell. There was no use labeling them, since slaves were not allowed to learn to read.
The house was closed for 3 years, starting in 2005, for a major restoration that cost $3 million. One million of that was to replace the roof.
4. An engaging, knowledgeable guide. For me, a good house tour provides both the story of the family and information about the building and objects. The volunteer tour guide, Carl, knew everything about both. He was interesting and funny and informative. Best. Tour-guide. Ever. And no, I’m not his mother.
The 63 acre Hampton National Historic Site is made up of the house and a farm. The grounds of Hampton manor and the farm will be next.