The expense of ongoing renovations at Morven Park has prompted changes in the management of the historic, 1,050-acre estate.
As of next year, the Westmoreland Davis Memorial Foundation, which operates as Morven Park, will no longer run the Morven Park International Equestrian Center on the property. Instead, operations at the center -- which includes outdoor arenas, a steeplechase course, carriage obstacles and cross-country courses -- may be contracted to another organization, according to Will O'Keefe, the foundation's executive director.
Since the early 1990s, the center, which began as an institute to train instructors in the 1960s, has been used primarily as an equine events facility, most notably hosting the spring horse trials, a three-day show in the fall and the Morven Park Steeplechase Races. Officials say those signature events will continue and that contracts with outside groups, which run through the end of the year, will be honored.
But the park will cease to organize its own trail rides, dressage and hunter shows. Those already scheduled will not be canceled. Other community events, such as the Potomac Celtic Festival, the All Breed Dog Show and Obedience Trial and antique shows will not be affected by the change.
The equestrian center is "a good use of the property, we just can't afford to keep supporting it" at about $100,000 to $200,000 a year, O'Keefe said. Most of that money goes to facility improvements and maintenance provided by Morven Park employees, O'Keefe said. But the foundation must focus its resources on restoring the historic buildings on the property, he said.
The historic estate was home to two governors: Thomas Swann, a governor of Maryland in the 19th century, and Westmoreland Davis, a Virginia reform governor. After Davis's death, his widow established the foundation as a memorial to her husband, and the estate was opened to the public in 1967. Equestrian activities have be held on the northeast side of the property since then.
"We know this facility is important to the equestrian community," said Ready Snodgrass, an executive assistant at the foundation. "We're not locking the doors. We're just not going to be in the same position to offer them the same levels of support."
Although such a move had been discussed for years, the recent discovery of structural damage in the mansion expedited the decision, officials said. The exterior of the building, which was constructed in the 1750s, with several major expansions through the 1880s, had been under renovation for about two years. As that $2 million project neared completion, engineers inspected the house in preparation for a phase of work planned for several years in the future.
The recently discovered damage under the building, the result of years of runoff from a large hill behind the house, must be addressed immediately. After a rainstorm, O'Keefe said, one can even hear water trickling beneath the historic home.
"We don't know how extensive the structural problems are," O'Keefe said. "We just know there are some. . . . It's a big threat to the mansion."
The building, whose last day for viewing was Monday, will be closed for at least a year, and the total cost of the repairs is unclear, O'Keefe said. Since much of the house sits directly on the ground, rather than above a basement, the floorboards must be removed for further inspection and repairs. Last week, furniture from the first floor was moved into the trophy room, which will not be affected, and such items as china, books and photos were packed for storage on the second floor. Even Mrs. Davis's bridge table will need to be moved, said Melissa York, director of restoration. The floorboards will be tagged so they can be returned to their original positions once work has been completed.
To keep the problems from recurring, a low stone wall between the house and the hill will be replaced and will have a deeper foundation and a sophisticated drainage system, O'Keefe said. In addition, trenches in front of the house that provide utilities will be reinforced.
"We always knew we had to do this; we just didn't know quite when," York said. She noted that the elaborate chandeliers that were taken down during the external renovations and rehung in April must be removed again.
While the mansion is being restored, other parts of the estate will remain open to the public, including the formal gardens, the Viola Winmill carriage collection, a reproduction Civil War hut and the Coach House, where some of the Davis family artifacts will be on display while the mansion is closed.