Towson’s Birthplace and Architectural Gem
Judging by the endless river of cars flowing around Towson Circle and the sounds of construction now present on Practically every street corner, Towson feels as modern a town center as its charming city neighbor to the south. As ever, looks can be deceiving. Jump off the Towson Circle, and the trappings of 21st-century development can quickly melt away, especially when you head just three minutes north to Towson’s Hampton neighborhood. Buried among the suburban sprawl and hidden by the hum of the beltway is a stately remnant of Towson’s colonial beginnings.
While it may be hidden, Towson’s Hampton mansion is hard to miss. Towering above the century-old oaks and elms that surround it, Hampton is the largest example of 18th-century Georgian architecture in North America. Larger than both Washington’s Mount Veron and Jefferson’s Monticello, Hampton is an imposing balance of symmetry and intricacy that seems otherworldly compared to the 20th-century American ranchers built right across Hampton Lane.
Its grand nature and bucolic location is no accident. Hampton was designed as the crown jewel and summer home of the Ridgely family, a once powerful dynasty in the Old Line State. The Ridgelys were some of the Towson area’s earliest settlers, coming to Baltimore County in the early 18th century to establish an ironworks and develop plantations. By the late 1700s, the Ridgely’s had amassed an estate of 12,000 acres known as Northampton, running from modern-day south Towson through the Cromwell Valley. Much of this expansion took place under the guidance of Capt. Charles Ridgely, a patriarch of the Ridgely family whose vast wealth and resources gave him a supporting role in Maryland and America’s early history.
During the Revolutionary War, Charles used his family’s industrial assets to produce arms and ammunition for the American cause. He also acquired a large merchant fleet that helped turn the sleepy port of Baltimore into a commercial powerhouse on the eve of the 19th century. The profit and regional prestige generated by these ventures among the upper class soon led to the construction of a country home where the family could escape the humid streets of Baltimore’s summer months and entertain their peers. In 1783, the cornerstone of Hampton mansion was laid near the center of the Ridgely’s Baltimore plantation.
No expense was spared. The structure covered 24,000 square feet, likely making it the largest private residence in the nation when it was completed. Six bedrooms were splayed out across the second floor while the third floor was home to eight smaller bedchambers whose usage over the next century would vary from private quarters to wine storage.
While Charles oversaw construction of his stately summer home for the next seven years, he never got the chance to live in it. Dying in 1790, control of the mansion fell to his nephew, Charles Carnan Ridgely. He went on to make his own mark on Maryland’s history; he served in the Maryland State Legislature and then as the state’s governor from 1815 to 1819. Charles Carnan was also one of the first Marylanders to take progressive action towards the slave labor that underpinned much of the region’s wealth, emancipating more than 300 slaves following his death in 1829.
It was under this Ridgely that Hampton Mansion first became nationally known as an architectural marvel and opulent social stage for the new nation’s upper class. Believed to be the single largest personal residence in the country, Hampton was outfitted with the rarest and most expensive amenities of the age, making it a popular destination for the rich and powerful. So popular in fact that the Ridgelys hosted some of the era’s most popular living legends, including French Revolutionary War hero Marquis de Lafayette.
By the time of his death in 1829, Charles Carnan had established Hampton as a lavish country estate that reflected the grandeur and power of its occupants. His son, John Carnan Ridgely, and his son’s wife, Eliza Eichelberger Ridgely, largely amplified the work of the elder Ridgely. Pouring time and money into the aging family home, John and his wife redesigned the estate’s gardens, introducing popular European designs and flora to the grounds. They also added a wide range of modern amenities to Georgian structure, including indoor plumbing, gas lighting and an early form of central heating.
By the eve of the Civil War, Hampton had been a fixture of wealth and opulence in Maryland for 70 years. However, its days as a prominent social venue were numbered. With the abolition of slavery in Maryland in 1864, the Ridgelys’ fortunes took a significant downturn as the slave labor they depended on for much of their wealth became a thing of the past. Following the Civil War, the family and estate entered a long period of steady decline as the mansion slowly became a single family residence and a symbol of past grandeur rather than present power. Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Ridgelys gradually sold off acres of their once massive estate and entered into various small-scale mercantile ventures in an effort to keep up the increasing maintenance costs of the aging hall long called home by their family.
Further economic hardships created by the Great Depression and the Second World War finally made the cost of maintenance far too expensive for the Ridgelys. In 1948, John Ridgely Jr., the seventh direct descendant of Captain Charles Ridgely to live in Hampton Hall, sold the mansion and its remaining 43 acres for one dollar to the Avalon Foundation, a trust set up to save the property. The property was then promptly donated to the National Park Service which has maintained the property to this day.
Today, the Ridgelys are no longer one of Maryland’s powerful first families. However, the striking Georgian Summer home their ancestors constructed still speaks volumes about the origins of modern-day Baltimore County. In addition to providing regular events and education programs, the National Park Service has transformed the Ridgelys’ sleepy summer abode into a living monument to those who shaped the history of Maryland. Each room has been meticulously restored to provide a glimpse into one of the many eras Hampton saw. From the 19th century downstairs parlor to the austere bedchambers of the 1930’s, these restorations provide a striking glimpse into the past that fosters both curiosity and enthusiasm. During tours provided by the park rangers, visitors are very much able to walk through both the history of Hampton and that of the nation.
Most importantly, visiting Hampton provides a refreshing take on the often overlooked history of the many Marylanders, both enslaved and free, that gave Baltimore and the County its unique history and culture. Thanks to the park service, much about the building that left the 18th-century visitor in awe will still take your breath away 228 years later. So, while much of the surrounding area continues to build, grow and learn, Hampton mansion remains a striking reminder of why it’s all here in the first place.