It’s an overcast spring Saturday and David and Kara Pleasants of College Park, Md., are midway through their usual routine: pack up food, drinks and toys for 3-year-old Nora and drive 90 minutes north to renovate a rundown historical farmhouse they plan to live in, then return to its owner, the state of Maryland.
In a few moments David, 30, will don a safety harness and climb two stories to replace rotting wood under the neglected slate roof. “It’s been 10 times more difficult than I expected,” he says with an exasperated laugh, taking a quick break in the only functional room of Stump Farm, a 19th-century Harford County structure with portions dating to the 1790s.
Kara, 29, nods sympathetically. She’ll tackle whatever tasks she can manage in the company of their preschooler, who is sitting on an inflatable mattress in the otherwise bare room, chomping on pretzels as she colors. The unexpectedly tricky roof is just one of many challenges ahead, Kara knows. “That’s what we expect the whole project to be.”
That “whole project” is an estimated 10-year, $250,000 effort to return the 3,000-square-foot farmhouse, perched on 11 hilly acres of woods and fallow cornfields in Susquehanna State Park, to a historically appropriate iteration of its former self. In the end, the Pleasantses will have a five-bedroom, three-bathroom home. They will fund the renovation and, in turn, will get to live rent-free in the house for as long as they wish.
The list of tasks would make even an experienced DIY-er queasy: lead abatement; overhauls of the plumbing, electrical and heating systems; new bathrooms and kitchen; wood-floor restoration and replacement; replastering and painting; salvaging and replacing trim work. Then there’s the challenge of furnishing and decorating in a style true to the home’s past but livable for two millennials and a child. And all that doesn’t even include rehabbing seven outbuildings — including a barn, springhouse, corn crib and hog pen — that are in various states of disrepair.
The redo comes under the purview of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Resident Curatorship Program, which since 1982 has been pairing dilapidated publicly owned historical homes with residents willing and able to restore, maintain and share them occasionally with the public.
The program — the oldest of its kind in the nation — got its start thanks to Larry and Agnes Bartlett, who set their sights on a decaying 18th-century Baltimore County farmhouse. With a little digging they discovered the house, in Gunpowder Falls State Park, was owned by the state, which didn’t want to sell, says Peter Morrill, who manages the curatorship program. “So they said, ‘If you let us live there we’ll fix it up.’ ”
Since then, the program has been formalized and expanded to include 47 other homes, most on parkland.
Potential resident curators must submit a detailed five- to seven-year restoration plan and prove they have the technical skill and financial resources to complete the work. Often the homes have sat vacant for years, in rare cases even decades, and typically require between $175,000 and $300,000 in restoration costs (some of that in the form of labor). Resident curators must promise to open the home to the public periodically and are responsible for local taxes and fees and all maintenance. And they cannot pass the property to heirs when they die.
“You have to be a little bit crazy,” Morrill says with a wry grin. “A good kind of crazy. I try to make it very clear to them that this is not a cheap venture.”
Still, resident curators get lifetime, rent-free, state-tax-free living, often in a stately home in a state park. “It’s being part of something that is historic, something that other people want preserved,” says Kara.
When the couple stumbled across the online listing in January 2015 for what the Department of Natural Resources dubbed Gardner Farm (the Pleasantses prefer Stump Farm, after the original owners), they were intrigued but not entirely hopeful. Both were working part time and attending the University of Maryland — David getting a second degree, in engineering; Kara getting a second master’s, in English language and literature. “We thought there’s no way — somebody rich is going to apply for this,” says Kara.
Their backgrounds seemed a good fit. David had grown up an outdoorsy kid in rural Montana, helping out on his grandparents’ horse ranch and working construction jobs. Kara had roots in Maryland but had spent much of her childhood in Siberia, where her father was a missionary (she met David in Montana when her father’s job took the family there). After college, David had spent two years as head of maintenance for a 100-year-old nursing facility. Kara’s professional background, as a part-time lecturer in professional writing at U-Md. and a former public-school teacher, seemed custom-made for hosting educational events. Both were eager to delve into the home’s lineage, especially David, whose first undergraduate degree was in history.
While David grew up with an “ownership mentality,” Kara’s time in Siberia instilled in her a comfort with communal property. “It takes a different kind of person to do this in the first place,” she says.
That kind of person — someone who “has to keep in mind that it ultimately is the property of the taxpayers,” as Morrill says — also needs to have enough patience and flexibility to partner with the state, which must approve all projects. Finding the right match can take years. Morrill is looking for a curator for the Old Bohemia Tenant House, a circa 1840 Cecil County farmhouse empty since 2009. Like Stump Farm, it is structurally sound but needs all new systems and, he says, “someone to give it some love.”
At Stump Farm, the first order of business, along with repairing the roof, is to revamp the roughly 200-year-old springhouse to restore running water to the home. The couple hopes to move onto the farm by midsummer, first in an RV, then into the kitchen wing, which was occupied until 2012 and still sports wood paneling and ragged carpet over its red-pine flooring. They’ll eventually move into the long-empty two-story, five-bay stone main house, where they’ll be joined by Kara’s parents.
Though they’re not required to restore the house’s interior to historical standards, the Pleasantses plan to hew closely to its original layout and to “keep it historic inside,” says Kara.
That’s challenging given the decades of renovations that have preceded theirs. “You’re dealing with a mismatch of time frames,” says David, who plans to salvage and then imitate the little original trim that remains.
They’ll also undo past work, reopening a blocked passageway between the kitchen wing and main house, demolishing an oddly placed bathroom and removing the kitchen ceiling to expose the original beams. They’ll replace the kitchen wing’s sad aluminum siding with wood, unbrick the home’s two fireplaces and rectify a prior occupant’s unfortunate decision to paint the upstairs hardwood floors brown.
One day, they hope to convert a few acres to organic farmland, maybe raise a few animals, and host open houses or educational events. “I really like the idea of involving the community,” says Kara.
It will be, for David, a full-time effort: He’s ditching his engineering program. Kara, who finished her graduate studies in May, will teach three online courses in the fall for the University of Maryland.
To fund the initial restoration, the Pleasantses will use the proceeds of the sale of their College Park home, about $130,000. The rest will come mostly in the form of sweat equity.
It’s an investment they expect will pay off after about 10 years of living in the house.
On another spring Saturday at Stump Farm, David Pleasants stands on a battered hardwood floor and raps with his knuckles on a partition he plans to tear down to create a roomy master bedroom with a private bathroom, fireplace and views of the valley below.
“I think if there’s treasure, it’s behind this wall,” he says, cracking a grin.
He’s joking, of course. The real reward for this endeavor is a lot less bankable and a long way off. But that’s okay. “We plan to stay for the rest of our lives,” says David. “I’ve never thought it wouldn’t be worth it.”
Christina Breda Antoniades is a writer for the Magazine.
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Most of the homes in the Resident Curatorship Program are open on an irregular schedule, with open houses and other events posted on the DNR’s Resident Curatorship Program website. Two that are open on a regular schedule are:
Button Farm : 1850s farm in Seneca Creek State Park. Open Saturdays (except holidays) noon to 4 p.m. for self-guided tours, April 1 through Nov. 1; weekdays by appointment for groups. firstname.lastname@example.org, buttonfarm.org.
Rackliffe House :18th-century plantation house overlooking Sinepuxent Bay and highlighting seaside merchant-planter life. Open 1 to 4 p.m late May through September. Last tour begins at 3:15 p.m. 443-614-0261. rackliffehouse.org.
Nearby resident curatorship programs