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Charmed Life

House Proud

Sam Holden

By Charles Cohen | Posted 9/26/2001

By the time I'd climbed the hill to Mount Clare Museum House in Carroll Park, I didn't know what to expect. Maybe it was the isolation of the park that fueled my apprehension, or the guy nodding out behind a monument placed absurdly in the middle of the hill, or the deserted feel of the manor's backyard, with its strange row of stones, mounted in the soft earth like unmarked graves. I half-expected to find some moldering pile, redolent of faded splendor.

But when Alan Gephardt swung open those foreboding old doors, I found myself being ushered into a vibrant, fully restored mansion. I was stunned.

And that, Gephardt says, is precisely the problem: Here's this circa-1760 manor, on rolling, pastoral grounds, offering a view of Baltimore's skyline and a window into the city's Colonial past. And hardly anyone knows about it. Sealed away behind Southwest Baltimore's old factory yards and rowhouses and corner bars, Mount Clare isn't exactly part of what downtown-promoter types call the "tourist bubble."

"All the tourists get dumped off the buses at the Inner Harbor and stay there," Gephardt gripes.

Mount Clare's administrator and only full-time staffer, Gephardt is kind of like the lone occupant of the proverbial scary house of the neighborhood. "Right now a good week is if we have three of four people a day during the week and six to 10 on weekends," he says. "Obviously that's not a 'good' week, but for us that's a better week."

The tourists don't know what they're missing, as a tour through the house makes clear. Mount Clare is beautifully restored but doesn't seem distant, ancient, untouchable. The worn period furnishings give the house a lived-in feel. It's easy to imagine the 18th-century aristocracy settling in for an evening of games, or enjoying an orange plucked fresh from the greenhouse, home to one of only three citrus orchards in Maryland.

Leading the tour, Gephardt proudly points out that 85 percent of the furnishings and artifacts housed at Mount Clare are the real thing, used by the Carrolls in days of yore. "The furniture set--original. The silver teapot--original. The chocolate warmer--original," he chants, whisking me through the high-ceilinged rooms. He goes on, pointing to the china, a crib, the gambling tables--"all original."

"A lot of people are impressed with this house, that the people who originally lived here still [seem like they] live here," Gephardt says.

Mount Clare was built in 1760 as a summer residence for Charles Carroll, Barrister (not to be confused with Charles Carroll of Carrollton, signer of the Declaration of Independence; the two men were second cousins), on an 800-acre family plantation. (The property originally measured 2,568 acres, extending from the Patapsco River to present-day Baltimore Street, but large tracts were sold off to the now-defunct Baltimore Iron Works in 1729. A century later, more land was sold to the upstart B&O Railroad.)

In the ensuing decades, Mount Clare became a year-round residence for the Barrister and his wife, Margaret Tilghman Carroll, who filled it with art and furnishings from around the world. As Baltimore grew, however, the estate lost a measure of its bucolic charm. In 1850, the Barrister's heirs, while retaining ownership of the property, left the house for more pastoral digs. The furniture eventually was divided up among the Carrolls and their relatives, including members of other old Maryland families such as the Tilghmans. "Over time, it just got dispersed over many lines," Gephardt says. After the family disembarked Mount Clare was converted into a hotel, which reportedly housed Union officers during the Civil War (when U.S. troops camped on the grounds), although Gephardt says there is "no documentation" of any such tenancy.

The property stayed in the Carrolls' hands until 1890, when the family sold it to Baltimore City. In 1917, the city turned it over to the care of the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America, which set about restoring Mount Clare to its original form. Since then, the Colonial Dames, an exclusive society of descendants of pre-Revolutionary War families, have used their old-line connections to reunite the house with much of the original furniture. The most recent acquisitions, a bureau and a portrait, were returned to the house this past June.

"It was quite a task," says Nan Cockey III, past president of the Dames. "Fortunately, we had members who were descendants of the Carroll family." Several Carroll heirs left the house items in their wills, Cockey says, adding, "When you look at other historical sites, there are not as many items in those places that were originally in the house."

While those efforts have restored Mount Clare's Colonial pedigree, they have not translated into recognition on the tourist circuit. But Gephardt believes the mansion is poised to once again takes its place among Baltimore's jewels. The city is planning to steer the Gwynns Falls hiker-biker trail through Carroll Park en route to the Inner Harbor. And the redevelopment of the long-vacant Montgomery Ward warehouse across Monroe Street into offices will bring more people into proximity with the park and house. Until then, though, the houses treasures remain, at least as far as the public is concerned, largely buried.

Mount Clare Museum House is open 11 a.m.-4 p.m. weekdays (except Monday) and 1-4 p.m. weekends. Tours are conducted on the hour. Admission is $6, $5 for seniors, $3 for students, and $1 for children 12 and under.

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