Just three blocks from Bladensburg Waterfront Park — where ships once made their way up the Anacostia River to bring supplies to the town and take flour and tobacco back down the Potomac — there is a house that has stood since the port’s most bustling days.
But Bostwick House’s history is in danger of being lost as the structure deteriorates, Bladensburg officials say, unless something is done to restore it to make it usable.
“We want [Bostwick] to be a place that everyone in the community can use, not a house on the hill that’s off-limits,” said Patricia McAuley, clerk for the town, which owns the property.
Bostwick House was built in 1746 by Christopher Lowndes, a Bladensburg merchant, and the building is one of only four pre-Revolutionary structures still standing in the town.
Lowndes named the building after his family’s Bostwich estate in England. The home is on 48th Street, and the property is adjacent to Bladensburg Elementary School. In addition to importing spices, dry goods and slaves, Lowndes owned a shipyard and manufactured ropes used on ships. He also was a town commissioner for 40 years.
“[Bostwick] really represents why Bladensburg is there in the first place, for the port and the trade,” said Aaron Marcavitch, executive director of Anacostia Trails Heritage Area Inc., an organization that works to promote the history and cultural resources in northern Prince George’s County. The organization is working to help Bladensburg raise awareness for the needs of Bostwick House.
Although limited numbers of tours and events are staged there, the house has never been open to the public on a regular basis. Town officials say it needs a lot of work before it’s suitable for daily use, although officials have not decided whether the house will open as a museum, a community center or with some other function.
The town is looking at bids to rebuild one of the house’s chimneys, which was damaged in a 5.8-magnitude earthquake Aug. 23. Other repairs needed include fixing the front steps, which were damaged by falling brick during the earthquake; stabilizing piers under the front porch; and repairing cracks in the foundation. To use the house as a museum or other public facility, the house must be renovated to be in compliance with accessibility and safety codes, officials said.
“We’re taking it one step at a time,” McAuley said.
For the past four years, students in the University of Maryland, College Park’s Historic Preservation Program have been using the home as a workshop, examining the structure and its history, coming up with ideas for how it could be used and its restoration funded. Right now, students and faculty are working with the city to come up with a list of priorities. Donald Linebaugh, the director of the Historic Preservation Program, said the necessary renovations could cost $1 million to $2.5 million, depending on how the city decides to use Bostwick — and what kind of damage they find along the way.
“Bostwick provides a wonderful workshop for the students,” Linebaugh said. “Most houses this age have undergone one, two, three, even four renovations over the years. But this house hasn’t been heavily renovated.”
Although the earthquake and the subsequent damage was a major blow to the house, Linebaugh said it pointed out how much the city needs to do to safeguard the building from another catastrophe. The second chimney, on the opposite side of the house, will have to be torn down and rebuilt, he said.
In March, Preservation Maryland and Maryland Life magazine named Bostwick as one of the 11 most endangered historical sites in the state. Susan Pearl of the Aman Memorial Trust, a nonprofit group that supports historic preservation in Bladensburg, nominated the site.
“There’s no question about its historical importance,” Pearl said, citing prominent citizens who lived in the house and its proximity to the Battle of Bladensburg during the War of 1812, just yards away from where British soldiers entered the town on their way to capture the District. “And there’s no question about its endangered condition.”
Sarah Rogers, director of interpretation for Anacostia Trails Heritage Area Inc., said the 7.7 acres on which the house sits are an especially valuable resource because little has been changed since the 18th and 19th centuries, when enslaved people and indentured servants worked on the land, including the upper pasture, where ropes were made.
“Only a very small percentage of the population lived in the big house,” said Rogers, adding that often only the homes of the most affluent residents are preserved, such as nearby Riversdale House Museum in Riverdale Park. “There aren’t a lot of places that can tell that story.”
On May 6, the city staged the first Bostwick May Festival, inviting the public to tour the grounds of the home — although they could not go into the house — and participate in historic activities such as brickmaking and calligraphy. A similar festival is being planned for Oct. 7, and McAuley said she hopes the public will come to understand the value of Bostwick.
“Bostwick needs all the exposure it can get,” McAuley said. “Because the more people who are interested, the more we can move forward in preserving it.”
For information, visit www.townofbladensburg.com.