Back to the Beginning

A little-known mansion in Maryland led to the creation of the National Trust

Hampton National Historic Site

Credit: Dwight Young

We haven't made much fuss about it, but the National Trust celebrates its 60th birthday this fall. I thought about hiring a hall and inviting a few hundred friends over for cake and ice cream, but in the end I decided to mark the occasion by spending an afternoon at Hampton, the National Historic Site in the suburbs of Baltimore where the idea for the Trust was born.

In May 1944, David Finley, director of the National Gallery of Art, went to Hampton to see a portrait he hoped to acquire for the gallery. As it turned out, he was delighted with the painting—and equally impressed by Hampton itself. But there was a problem: The Ridgely family, which had called the estate home since the 1780s, could no longer afford to maintain it and was thinking about selling to a developer. A place that Finley described as "so appealing in its beauty and dignity, and practically unchanged...after more than a hundred and sixty years" faced an uncertain future.

Not one to let this sort of thing slide, Finley went to work. He met with officials from the National Park Service, but they were decidedly unenthusiastic about acquiring the property. The Ridgelys, after all, were not exactly A-list historical figures, and Hampton—a huge house with numerous outbuildings, all in various stages of decrepitude, plus an enormous collection of stuff—looked like a bottomless money pit. 

The ever-persistent, ever-persuasive Finley eventually found a donor who bought the property and gave it to the Department of the Interior, which opened it to the public in 1949. By that time, the long struggle to save Hampton had shown Finley the need for a nongovernmental organization to fight for the preservation of America's historic buildings. At a meeting convened at the National Gallery, groundwork was laid for the creation of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in the United States. Six years after his initial visit to Hampton, David Finley was named chairman of the new National Trust. 

What is it about Hampton that impressed Finley so much? At first glance, the 18th-century mansion seems like the big-white-columns-and-a-cupola embodiment of old-school preservation: It's a sophisticated Georgian country house, crammed with stylish furniture and silver candelabra, crowded with the spirits of long-dead rich white people. In fact, "crammed" and "crowded" are the whole point. The way the Ridgelys lived, the home they loved, the things they accumulated and used—all the evidence of the personalities, quirks, and achievements of seven generations is preserved in a house that Finley recognized as "an authentic American document such as one seldom sees anywhere."

But there's more to Hampton than the house. There's a family cemetery where two longtime servants—one African American, one Irish—rest with several Ridgelys. There's a collection of barns, an underground icehouse, and a spring-cooled dairy. There's a gambrel-roofed farmhouse where the family lived while the mansion was being constructed, and a pair of stone buildings that housed some of the slaves whose labor made it all possible. 

You should see Hampton. Tour the house, wander the grounds, maybe even flop under a big tree and think about it all: about the vanished world represented by the canopied beds in the great house and the pallets on the slave-house floors; about how proud the Ridgelys were of their palace in the Maryland countryside, and how distressed they must have been to think about losing it; about how David Finley's efforts not only saved an important landmark but also sparked the creation of (a bit of chest thumping here) an organization dedicated to saving places that matter.

On the occasion of our 60th birthday—or any day—it's a fine place to spend an afternoon.   

For more photos, stories, and tips, subscribe to the print edition of Preservation magazine.