The National Park Service is proposing to lease to the public more than a dozen historic buildings in the Washington region, including Harmony Hall, a mansion overlooking the Potomac River; a Harper's Ferry tavern, and a farmhouse on the C&O Canal used by President Cleveland as a fishing retreat.
Several of the buildings are seen by government lawyers as ideal bed-and-breakfast inns -- such as the 10-bedroom Gambrill mansion in Monocacy National Battlefield near Frederick, Md. -- which was opened Thursday to prospective lessees.
Nearly 100 park service historic properties across the country are up for lease for private or business use, including Fire Island Light House at the entrance to New York harbor, houses in Cape Cod National Seashore, the old city hall in Lowell, Mass., and a mansion in Valley Forge National Historical Park.
The leasing of properties on the National Register of Historic Places was authorized by Congress in 1980 as a means of preserving buildings for which federal agencies have no use and which they cannot afford to restore and maintain.
Lessees, under leases ranging from 15 to 99 years, agree to restore and preserve the buildings and may amortize the restoration costs under park service leases. They may be eligible for 25 percent federal investment tax credits for restoring historic properties.
The first lease agreement, signed last winter, was not for a building but for farm land in an Arkansas Civil War military park, according to Susan Harrison, regional historic property leasing coordinator. So far about half the proposed leases have been for agricultural use of parkland, where Harrison said farmed fields add to the historic authenticity of the park.
In the sprawling Washington region of the park service, which includes more than 50,000 acres in Virginia, Maryland and West Virginia as well as the District of Columbia, all 15 properties up for lease are historic buildings.
Almost all are in scenic settings in popular parks. Some are in relatively good condition, such as the Victorian Gambrill Mansion, which has tennis courts and even an intercom and cable TV system, several handsome historic homes in Antietam National Battlefield, and Harmony Hall near Fort Washington in Prince George's County.
The first local lease, awaiting final approval, is for an Antietam Battlefield farmhouse that a couple will turn into a bed-and-breakfast inn, according to park service real estate agent John Blair. They plan to spend $100,000 to restore the house, have a 56-year lease and will pay the park service $200 a month rent, Blair said.
Half a dozen prospective lessees toured Harmony Hall last week, and a second tour is scheduled for tomorrow. The 260-year-old Georgian brick plantation house, with 65 acres and a dock site on Broad Creek, has much of its original woodwork. But it needs some work, Blair said.
Some park service buildings need extensive renovation, such as Pennyfield House, overlooking the C&O Canal in upper Montgomery County, where Cleveland had freshly caught eels cooked for his breakfast, and the Salty Dog Tavern in Harper's Ferry, gutted by fire in 1960.
The tavern would make a fine boat rental building, Blair said. The park service is not encouraging its historic use here, he said. "It was a notorious brothel."