Jesup Blair Mansion to be renovated

(Silver Spring Historical Society)
By Jason Tomassini
The Gazette
Thursday, May 6, 2010

Although they have grown scarcer over the years, dozens of tall trees that fill Jesup Blair Park in Silver Spring have obscured the Jesup Blair Mansion from passers-by along Georgia Avenue and Blair Road for more than 150 years.

In its original form, the two-story, four-bedroom cottage represented the best in Italianate-style architecture. The mansion, also known as the Moorings, was built in 1850 by Silver Spring's founder, Francis Preston Blair, for his son, James. It is the last standing Blair estate.

But in Jesup Blair Mansion's current form, any resemblance to the home that members of Silver Spring's founding family once inhabited seems lost. The roof leaks, the floorboards have holes, mold runs rampant and the original feature that remains is a center staircase that has been painted pink, historians said.

"The house is not habitable; there's too much mold," said John Nissel, chief of the facilities management division of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, which has owned Jesup Blair Mansion since 1934, when James Blair's daughter, Violet, bequeathed it.

Since September 2008, when the Montgomery County Housing Opportunities Commission and Department of Housing and Community Affairs stopped using the mansion as low-income housing for single parents, no one has lived there.

Now, historians and county officials are looking to add office space and a museum function. The renovation might cost more than $500,000. But some of those same historians say the mold, the holes and the pink staircase could have been avoided.

"The intention was good: They were trying to provide housing to people who needed it. It's just really heartbreaking," said Ed Grosvenor, the president and editor-in-chief of Rockville-based American Heritage Publishing, which will advise on the restoration of the house and eventually could move its offices to the building. "In retrospect, it certainly was unfortunate."

In 1991, Baltimore developer Willard Hackerman donated up to $1 million to renovate the mansion into transitional housing for low-income single parents and their children. At the time, preservationists, residents and some County Council members who opposed Hackerman's philanthropy predicted that overhauling the building's interior into 10 shelter rooms would ruin its historic character.

"It wouldn't be in the shape it is right now if it was used as something it should be used for," said former council member Rose Crenca of Silver Spring, who was in favor of adding low-income housing but not at a historic site.

Managing a historic building for low-income residential use is not easy, Nissel and HOC officials said. In early 2008 the HOC, which did not pay rent but was responsible for the building's maintenance and upkeep, realized that at least $500,000 in repairs was needed, including replacement of a nearly 100-year-old roof. With money unavailable, the facility was closed in February 2008, and tenants were given vouchers and up to six months to find housing elsewhere.

"Our mission is to provide affordable housing, but we can't do it at a loss," said Andrew Oxendine, deputy director of housing management for the HOC.

As part of the Department of Housing and Community Affairs' lease with M-NCPPC, the building must be returned to the condition it was in when the lease began, Nissel said. That is a major challenge in tough budget times, he said, adding that it's unlikely that an agreement on how to pay for the renovations could be reached before DHCA's lease expires in December.

Nissel said the building probably will be made into offices for possible tenants American Heritage Publishing and the Silver Spring Historical Society. They would pay rent that would fund building maintenance, giving the house a better chance at survival, Nissel said.

Grosvenor said he hopes to highlight the mansion's history through tours, archives and paintings.

Before James Blair's death in 1852 at age 33, he had been a successful midshipman who helped discover Antarctica, Grosvenor said. Francis Preston Blair's summer estate, called Silver Spring, is now Acorn Park at East West Highway and Newell Street. Falkland, the estate of his son, Montgomery Blair, burned down in 1864 as part of a Confederate retreat in the Civil War, according to research by the Silver Spring Historical Society.

When asked whether his effort to restore the oral history of the Blairs and Silver Spring could be matched by efforts to restore its physical history, Grosvenor paused and then sighed.

"It's gonna be a tough job," he said. "Falkland is gone, Silver Spring is gone; we lose things all the time. I'm just happy that at least there's one Blair home left that can be saved."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company