Robert R. Moxley, a tall man in a business suit, drove his black Cadillac up a winding, unpaved driveway to an elegant brick house known as Blandair in the heart of Howard County.

His sole mission that day in 1963 was to persuade the owner to sell, so that Baltimore developer James W. Rouse could finish piecing together the land he needed for Columbia, the planned community that he hoped would become a model for the nation.

But the task proved to be impossible -- and now many of Columbia's 90,000 residents are grateful.

Today, Blandair, a large 19th-century house with 20 outbuildings and 300 acres of rolling fields, is dilapidated and strewn with debris, its fields overgrown and crowded with deer. It is an anomaly in the manicured suburban landscape.

But it could well become Columbia's crown jewel.

Residents envision Blandair's graceful beauty restored. They see visitors strolling through lush gardens or, in nearby athletic fields, kicking soccer balls as the property is transformed into a regional county-owned park in the heart of Columbia's oldest neighborhoods.

"The sense I'm getting from people is, let's be careful what we do," said David A. Hatch, a member of the county's citizens advisory committee on Blandair. "We've got one chance to do it right."

Efforts are moving forward on several fronts, and the outlines of a final plan are expected to emerge in the next few months.

The Howard legislative delegation is seeking money from the Maryland General Assembly for Blandair's restoration, while the county readies a concept plan that includes children's play areas and gardens, education facilities and athletic fields.

Blandair's array of buildings includes rare surviving slave quarters, and state officials plan to apply for the property to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places this year. Historians enthusiastically describe Blandair as a treasure trove of Maryland farm life that reflects the last years of antebellum society.

"It's an intact parcel," said Thomas Reinhart, a research administrator with the Maryland Historical Trust who has just completed his master's thesis on Blandair. "It didn't fall to the rush of the 20th century."

The 11-room brick house has 12-foot-high ceilings, arched marble fireplace mantels and a wide, sturdy staircase with a gracefully curved banister in the center hall.

In an adjoining 21/2-story, seven-room wing where the servants lived, the ceilings are lower, the fireplaces are plain, and the stairs are rough and narrow.

Near the main house is a plank lumber building on a stone foundation that formerly housed slave families, Reinhart said.

"In some ways it's even more significant than the house because we have so few well-preserved [slave] quarters," he said.

In addition, Blandair may also contain the remains of 18th-century structures that date to the property's first settlement, Reinhart said.

Restoring the house and outbuildings will be done with the National Park Service and could cost more than $2 million, said Gary J. Arthur, director of recreation and parks for the county. The county delegation to the General Assembly is trying to win approval of a $500,000 state bond bill, which the county would have to match with $500,000 for work to begin.

Blandair wasn't supposed to withstand Rouse's vision of an orderly, planned community that would spread in 10 villages over more than 14,000 acres of farmland.

Moxley, an independent real estate broker and developer, was the crucial local agent who helped Rouse secure land for about $1,000 to $1,500 an acre, as Rouse hid his involvement through dummy corporations while putting together the property deals in the early '60s.

A native son from an old Howard family and a jet fighter pilot in the Korean War, Moxley worked day and night coaxing sales from lifelong farmers, from an old woman who spit tobacco juice on the dirt floor of her house, and from the Gudelsky brothers, gravel pit operators turned developers who controlled huge amounts of acreage in the emerging suburbs.

He repeatedly visited Lillie E. Smith and her grown daughter, Elizabeth C. "Nancy" Smith, who were living in Blandair. They had moved there after Henry E. Smith, a wealthy Baltimore builder, bought the estate in the 1930s. Smith died in 1939, but mother and daughter remained at the estate, where they kept horses, cultivated gardens and avidly played the stock market.

The Smiths were reluctant to sell. "Finally I struck a chord," Moxley recalled. "You talk long enough, you find there's a key to every lock."

Lillie Smith felt sentimental about her home county of St. Mary's, so Moxley enlisted the aid of Maryland Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein, a Calvert County native and folksy legend in state politics, to help him scout Southern Maryland properties so the Smiths could relocate.

But the Smiths balked again and told Moxley they were going to stay put.

Decades later, Moxley paused a long moment as he considered that failure in his land acquisition efforts.

"If Columbia depended on Blandair, I would have stayed there until I wore them down or they wore me down. But the city was going to go ahead without them," he said.

And that's what happened. After Columbia's debut in 1967, cul-de-sacs and village centers sprouted all around this remnant of Howard's rural past. Blandair seemed to fade from sight as the suburban community between Baltimore and Washington grew.

Nancy Smith became reclusive after her mother's death in 1979. She was contemptuous of Columbia and resented the state's move to put four-lane Route 175 through the southern part of her property. She and her beloved Blandair wasted away, and the 82-year-old Smith died in 1997 without signing a will.

Blandair passed to two cousins, who rejected offers from developers and sold the estate for $10.7 million in 1998 to Howard County, which used $6.7 million in state funds available for the protection of open space. The sale was challenged in court by friends of Smith, who said it violated her wishes, but their last appeal failed in 2001.

Blandair suffered at the hands of vandals before the county installed a trailer for a resident caretaker in 2000. Holes in the mansion's roof, now temporarily sealed, led to chunks of plaster falling from ceilings. The clutter of belongings that filled the house during Smith's last years is being sorted by volunteers.

Deciding the form and function of the regional park that Blandair will become has drawn myriad interest groups and provoked some concerns from nearby residents, who wonder whether the park will harm Columbia's older villages of Long Reach and Oakland Mills. Local residents will be able to air their views at community discussions this spring.

Some residents "are concerned about the many problems a large park could bring -- the noise, the lights late at night, the increased traffic," said Hatch, who chairs the Oakland Mills Village Board. "They've been very free in expressing that opinion to me."

But Robert J. Moon, a former Rouse Co. architect who chairs a citizens committee on Blandair's environmental features, has become a cheerleader for a multiuse park.

"To become involved with a community space that serves all ages and all cultures would be the highest use of real estate I could work on. We can look at the land as a mosaic. It's exactly the way Columbia was built," he said.

Back when Moxley was acquiring land at a hard run for Rouse's scheme, he didn't stop to look at Blandair -- "I wanted to buy the property, not tour the house," he said.

On a recent morning, he climbed the curving stairway, pointed out the old milk separator in the kitchen and walked the dirt lane to the barns.

"The land lies well here," he said. He strolled down to the biggest barn, where Nancy Smith kept her horses, and ran his hand over the thick, straight boards of the stalls.

"This shows the way it used to be many years ago," he said. "It's in good shape. The county ought to keep it."

Howard County is seeking state aid to restore Blandair, a 19th-century house and 300-acre property near Columbia.The kitchen of the main house shows the impact of years of neglect. The reclusive owner of the property died in 1997, and Howard County eventually bought it. Residents are helping plan its future.