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May 16, 2023

Chesapeake mansion, an architectural ‘milestone,’ wants the nation to see it

Whitehall, the product of enslaved labor, was the 18th-century home of one of Maryland’s last colonial governors

When Horatio Sharpe, the colonial governor of Maryland, started work on Whitehall in the 18th century, the story goes that he hoped the palatial villa on the Chesapeake Bay would win his beloved’s heart. Alas, the young woman fell for Sharpe’s friend and personal secretary instead.

But Whitehall’s most recent owners now hope to woo the American people — and perhaps tap Uncle Sam for some help keeping it up.

Long overshadowed by grander and more accessible cousins such as Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, Whitehall could become a main attraction in the proposed Chesapeake National Recreation Area, according to lawmakers and others pushing for the federal designation.
The Annapolis site would offer visitors a jumping-off point to explore the bay’s paradoxical history as the birthplace of American democracy and slavery. The National Register of Historic Places lists it as “a major milestone in American architectural history,” too, because of the scale and quality of a classical design that predated Monticello. Draft legislation would allow the National Park Service to acquire or partner with Whitehall and other designated sites on the bay.

The idea of transforming Whitehall into a national destination also has the blessing of a key individual: Charlie Scarlett, one of the last people to reside there.

Scarlett said he remembers family dinners on the grand portico overlooking the bay, learning to swim with a chunk of a two-by-four as a float, raising a red fox as a pet and living with a portrait of Edgar Allan Poe outside his bedroom.

“This is home for me,” he said during a recent tour. “And I love everything about it.”
His late father, Charles E. Scarlett, Jr., a Baltimore shipping executive with a love for history, bought Whitehall in 1946 and spent more than a decade restoring the structure to its original design, right down to hand-painted wallpaper imported from China. He lived at Whitehall with his wife until their deaths.

Charlie Scarlett, who oversees the family-run Brandywine Foundation that owns the property, is taking steps to open Whitehall to the public. Partly, his motivation is practical: He said the nonprofit organization struggles with the enormous cost of maintaining a nearly 260-year-old building.

But Scarlett, 70, a business executive who lives in St. Louis, said he also believes Whitehall should become more accessible to all Americans, including the many descendants of enslaved people who lived and worked there, because of its historical significance.

If Congress incorporates the bay into the national park system, Scarlett envisions Whitehall becoming a national attraction modeled on the nonprofit-owned Mount Vernon or managed by the National Park Service within a network of landmarks, such as those in San Francisco’s Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

Scarlett has even considered allowing Brandywine to sell his former home to the federal government. The foundation’s most recent publicly available income tax form values the property at $7.8 million.

“You know, if you’d asked me 10 years ago, I would have said, ‘Hell no.’ But that was 10 years ago,” Scarlett said. The manor’s leaking roof — which has caused extensive water damage — alone costs nearly $1 million to repair, he said

Janice Hayes-Williams, who lives in Severn, Md., and traces her family to Whitehall’s enslaved Africans and enslavers, said the historic site would be an asset to the country in educating people about the enduring impact of slavery. She said her late father dreamed of the day when he and other descendants of its enslaved residents might walk its halls.

“He would say, ‘Baby, whatever you do, go in there because your ancestors built that,’ ” Hayes-Williams recalled. He never got the chance, but when Hayes-Williams visited during an open house about five years ago, she wept. “The slaves are my family members,” she thought.

Unlike Jefferson and others whose homes have become national shrines, Sharpe was a British loyalist. He was born in Yorkshire to a large, prominent family whose connections likely played a role in his appointment as governor by Lord Baltimore, according to a 1937 article in the Maryland Historical Society’s magazine.

Sharpe also had received a captain’s commission in the Royal Marines, rising to lieutenant colonel with an infantry sent to the West Indies — an experience that made him a wise choice to run the colony on the eve of the French and Indian War. He was 35 when he sailed from England, accompanied by his private secretary, the Oxford-educated John Ridout, according to the 1912 book “A Colonial Governor In Maryland,” by Lady Matilda Ridout Edgar.

Legend has it that Sharpe set about building Whitehall in late 1764 to impress Mary Ogle, the daughter of a previous governor, according to a 1951 article by Charles Scarlett Jr. She fell for the younger Ridout, who eventually married her.

Col. Sharpe, as he was known, hired the best architects to build Whitehall and oversaw its construction, using enslaved Africans and indentured European laborers, including a skilled woodcarver who died of tuberculosis before he could earn his freedom.

The building’s design drew on the influential Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio, whose clean, simplified neoclassical Roman and Greek styles — distinguished by columns, domes and pediments — became popular in London in the mid-1700s, according to a 1974 report supporting Whitehall’s inclusion in the National Register. The Palladian style also influenced Monticello, the James Semple House in Williamsburg and other colonial homes.

Whitehall was one of only two pre-revolutionary houses in the United States to display a “full temple portico,” using massive Corinthian columns hewed from white cedar, the 1974 report says. (The other was Roger Morris’s mansion on the Harlem River, built in 1765.) The spacious interior also was “extraordinarily rich” with skilled wood carvings, including satyr-like faces in each corner of the central salon to represent the four winds. From atop the great square hall, a phoenix looks down.

“And so evolved in our part of the world a Palladian dwelling which in all probability marked the beginning of the full classic revival in America,” the elder Scarlett wrote. “Taken to heart and fostered by Thomas Jefferson, it was to become the foundation of our national architecture.”

Lady Ridout’s book describes Sharpe’s 1,000-acre estate humming with activity, much of it performed by enslaved people, in well-tended gardens, orchards, a sawmill, a brickyard and a workshop that spun cotton, flax and wool.

In 1773, Sharpe sailed for England, expecting to return to Whitehall, though he never did. He entrusted his beloved villa to Ridout, sometimes sending back cuttings for its vineyards or often writing to check up on affairs there, Lady Ridout wrote. In one letter, Sharpe granted Ridout freedom to sell enslaved workers if economically necessary, directing that they go only to purchasers “you are well assured will treat them with Humanity.”

Yet Hayes-Williams spent hours digging through state archives, including correspondence between Ridout and Sharpe discussing her ancestors in the same context as chattel.

“He’s basically saying, ‘Oh, the pigs are fine, the horses are fine, the slaves are fine,’” she recalled.

Upon Sharpe’s death in 1790, Ridout inherited Whitehall, and his heirs held onto it until 1895. After that, the property changed hands several times, including an early-20th-century purchaser who considered offering it as a summer White House for the president. By the time the Scarlett family bought Whitehall, the place was in disrepair.

In recent years, their family foundation has cobbled together a variety of business ventures, including using the now-115-acre site as a wedding venue. It hosts as many as 12 weddings a year for a rental fee of $19,000, part of which is shared with a wedding planner that handles the other arrangements. Other income comes from boarding horses ($500 a head per month) and renting out a small, 17th-century cottage ($500 a night on weekends). But it’s nowhere near enough to cover capital expenses and needs, such as the roof repair.

To defray the cost, Sens. Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin, both Maryland Democrats, secured $500,000 in fiscal 2023 for Whitehall’s restoration, as part of a $10.2 million package of local investments. The foundation also obtained a $100,000 preservation grant in 2021 from the Maryland Historical Trust, an agency within the state Department of Planning.

The Scarletts’ foundation has applied for inclusion in the agency’s Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network and explored a future partnership with the National Park Service to open Whitehall to the public.

Charlie Scarlett said possible options include creating a ferry service between Annapolis and Whitehall Creek west of the manor. Visitors probably would board at Burtis House, a former waterman’s home that also is expected to be a focal point in the proposed national recreation area. (Others include Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse and Fort Monroe’s North Beach in Virginia, where ships delivered enslaved Africans in 1619, as pivotal attractions anchoring the new park.)

“I think what makes it interesting from a historian’s perspective is, it’s a place where you can get a close connection to the loyalist story,” said Mary-Angela E. Hardwick, vice president of education and interpretation for Historic Annapolis, a nonprofit organization that operates a museum and colonial houses.

Wendy O’Sullivan, superintendent for the National Park Service’s Chesapeake office, said the Brandywine Foundation has sought recognition as a Gateway site but so far has not qualified because the site is not fully open to the public. She said the Park Service has been consulting with the foundation on how that could happen.

In the meantime, Scarlett said his family tries to accommodate requests for visits on an informal basis, as well as archaeological research, while planning for a future that could allow many more Americans to experience his former home.

“It’s a treasure,” he said.

By:  Fredrick Kunkle
Source: The Washington Post