Historic Md. Manor's Deteriorating Situation

Peeling paint and crumbling plaster are among the poor conditions at Prince George's County's Harmony Hall, built along the Potomac River in the 1730s.
Peeling paint and crumbling plaster are among the poor conditions at Prince George's County's Harmony Hall, built along the Potomac River in the 1730s. (By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
By Marc Fisher
Sunday, June 22, 2008

T he setting high above the Potomac River is nothing short of spectacular: a long, elegant drive, a grand Colonial manor house and then a wide, rolling lawn descending to the water. Here, just half an hour's drive from the White House, George Washington and his friends fished and dined together.

But we are not at Mount Vernon, not even in Virginia. No, this majestic manse, now sagging and empty, sits in Prince George's County, across the Potomac from the exquisitely rehabilitated historic houses of Virginia. No one lives here, and it's closed to the public. Once the site of magnificent parties and centuries of tobacco farming, this is a 65-acre estate that got caught up in a fantastic (or foolish) highway scheme -- and lost.

Harmony Hall dates to the 1730s, but since 1966, when its last private owner sold the house to the National Park Service for construction of the Maryland branch of the George Washington Memorial Parkway, the house has fallen into ever-harder times.

The parkway was not built in Maryland; residents of riverside communities such as Oxon Hill and Silesia managed to beat back plans for the road. The government had bought up a fair amount of land, including some gorgeous riverfront estates, and although the Park Service did open a couple of historic sites to the public at Fort Foote and Fort Washington, for example, well, there just isn't enough money to take care of everything.

One Saturday in 1985, Frank Calhoun, a lawyer who retired after 38 years of federal service, saw an ad in The Washington Post offering a chance to lease a historic mansion and live in it. Calhoun, who bred horses, sent a bid to the Park Service and won. He sold his cottage in Rehoboth Beach, Del., his townhouses on Capitol Hill and two old houses he owned in Delaware and moved with his partner into Harmony Hall.

"I put every dollar I had into that project," says Calhoun, now 72.

Fourteen years later, after he had poured more than $1 million into the house, putting up an addition, clearing the grounds, improving the systems, Calhoun fell behind on renovations. The Park Service asked him to leave.

That was in 1999. Harmony Hall has been empty -- and in accelerating decline -- since.

"We are grossly unhappy and concerned about what will happen to Harmony Hall because of the Park Service's inability to maintain it," says Dick Krueger, chairman of the Broad Creek Historic District, which includes the house.

Gayle Hazelwood, superintendent of the Park Service's National Capital Parks-East, counters that "visitors can't appreciate the amount of time it takes us to do things. It's a question of setting priorities."

Parts of Harmony Hall are boarded up. A set of outdoor stairs is missing. There's a new roof, but it's a temporary fix, asphalt shingles where slate is warranted. The site manager for Park Service properties along the Prince George's waterfront, Bill Clark, says he's been trying to get the house up to code by sending in his own staff, enlisting students to clean up the grounds and seeking support from neighbors.

"I promised this community we're going to stabilize this place and give them a place to relax, hear music, just be in peace," Clark says. For now, however, he's one of the few who get to walk the hillside and happen upon hundreds of Canada geese lazing in the sun.

"It's just tragic to see the paint peeling and the plaster crumbling," Calhoun says. "It's sickening. It's as if they just want it to burn down."

The opening of National Harbor, the hotel and retail development along the Potomac just south of the Wilson Bridge and three miles north of Harmony Hall, creates a ready supply of tourists who might enjoy a chance to slip back in time and see what the riverfront was like long before the days of chain restaurants. "Hiding our riverfront sites just isn't working," says David Turner, chairman of the county's Historic Preservation Commission. "If we don't make this riverfront into a destination, we'll lose it to more developments" like National Harbor.

But there's little money for Harmony Hall, says Hazelwood. "It competes with the Frederick Douglass home, which we just put $4 million into, and with parks such as Fort Washington," she said. "We'd love to do a water trail eventually, but it's probably not realistic. It's a slow process."

As a gesture of good faith, the Park Service is teaming with the Silesia Citizens Association to stage an outdoor concert July 19 at Harmony Hall, a chance for locals and visitors to glimpse the fallen splendor and imagine what might be once again.

"This is the Mount Vernon of the Maryland side of the river," says Carol Tilch, a leader of the Silesia group and a member of a family that lived and worked at the house for generations. "There's no way Harmony Hall is going to get the work it needs from the Park Service unless the house gets a lot of attention. I just believe that if you do things for the right reasons, somehow they will get done."

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