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In Prince George's, Neglect Brings Disharmony

The setting high above the Potomac River is nothing short of spectacular: a long, elegant drive, a grand Colonial manor house and then a wide, rolling lawn descending to the water. Here, just half an hour's drive from the White House, George Washington and his friends fished and dined together.

But we are not at Mount Vernon, not even in Virginia. No, this majestic manse, now sagging and empty, sits in Prince George's County, across the Potomac from the exquisitely rehabilitated historic houses of Virginia. No one lives here, and it's closed to the public. Once the site of magnificent parties and centuries of tobacco farming, this is a 65-acre estate that got caught up in a fantastic (or foolish) highway scheme -- and lost.

Harmony Hall dates to the 1730s, but since 1966, when its last private owner sold the house to the National Park Service for construction of the Maryland branch of the George Washington Memorial Parkway, the house has fallen into ever-harder times.

The parkway was not built in Maryland; residents of riverside communities such as Oxon Hill and Silesia managed to beat back plans for the road. The government had bought up a fair amount of land, including some gorgeous riverfront estates, and although the Park Service did open a couple of historic sites to the public at Fort Foote and Fort Washington, for example, well, there just isn't enough money to take care of everything.

One Saturday in 1985, Frank Calhoun, a lawyer who retired after 38 years of federal service, saw an ad in The Washington Post offering a chance to lease a historic mansion and live in it. Calhoun, who bred horses, sent a bid to the Park Service and won. He sold his cottage in Rehoboth Beach, Del., his townhouses on Capitol Hill and two old houses he owned in Delaware and moved with his partner into Harmony Hall.

"I put every dollar I had into that project," says Calhoun, now 72.

Fourteen years later, after he had poured more than $1 million into the house, putting up an addition, clearing the grounds, improving the systems, Calhoun fell behind on renovations. The Park Service asked him to leave.

That was in 1999. Harmony Hall has been empty -- and in accelerating decline -- since.

"We are grossly unhappy and concerned about what will happen to Harmony Hall because of the Park Service's inability to maintain it," says Dick Krueger, chairman of the Broad Creek Historic District, which includes the house.

Gayle Hazelwood, superintendent of the Park Service's National Capital Parks-East, counters that "visitors can't appreciate the amount of time it takes us to do things. It's a question of setting priorities."

Parts of Harmony Hall are boarded up. A set of outdoor stairs is missing. There's a new roof, but it's a temporary fix, asphalt shingles where slate is warranted. The site manager for Park Service properties along the Prince George's waterfront, Bill Clark, says he's been trying to get the house up to code by sending in his own staff, enlisting students to clean up the grounds and seeking support from neighbors.

"I promised this community we're going to stabilize this place and give them a place to relax, hear music, just be in peace," Clark says. For now, however, he's one of the few who get to walk the hillside and happen upon hundreds of Canada geese lazing in the sun.

"It's just tragic to see the paint peeling and the plaster crumbling," Calhoun says. "It's sickening. It's as if they just want it to burn down."

The opening of National Harbor, the hotel and retail development along the Potomac just south of the Wilson Bridge and three miles north of Harmony Hall, creates a ready supply of tourists who might enjoy a chance to slip back in time and see what the riverfront was like long before the days of chain restaurants. "Hiding our riverfront sites just isn't working," says David Turner, chairman of the county's Historic Preservation Commission. "If we don't make this riverfront into a destination, we'll lose it to more developments" like National Harbor.

But there's little money for Harmony Hall, says Hazelwood. "It competes with the Frederick Douglass home, which we just put $4 million into, and with parks such as Fort Washington," she said. "We'd love to do a water trail eventually, but it's probably not realistic. It's a slow process."

As a gesture of good faith, the Park Service is teaming with the Silesia Citizens Association to stage an outdoor concert July 19 at Harmony Hall, a chance for locals and visitors to glimpse the fallen splendor and imagine what might be once again.

"This is the Mount Vernon of the Maryland side of the river," says Carol Tilch, a leader of the Silesia group and a member of a family that lived and worked at the house for generations. "There's no way Harmony Hall is going to get the work it needs from the Park Service unless the house gets a lot of attention. I just believe that if you do things for the right reasons, somehow they will get done."

By Marc Fisher |  June 22, 2008; 9:22 AM ET
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Marc, why aren't you suggesting that the Montgomery County homeless family be moved into this mansion like you did for Hillmead. To ignore PG County's homeless problem while harping, mostly incorrectly, on Hillmead is nothing short of hypocrisy.

I say make this Mansion the home for several homeless families!!!

Posted by: Anonymous | June 22, 2008 10:29 AM

Thank you Marc for this article!! Harmony Hall is a National Treasure and should be restored and protected. I have read that it is the finest example of Georgian Architecture in Maryland. In addition to Harmony Hall, The Lyles house site, located on the same property, should be preserved or restored also. This is where Col. William Lyles lived and entertained George Washington, his friend and business associate.

Posted by: local200 | June 22, 2008 12:30 PM

This is kind of typical of the Park Service's treatment of its properties on the Maryland side of the Potomac for decades: board it up and let it fall apart and screw the locals. Glen Echo is another example. Thank God in that case Montgomery stepped up with the bucks to reverse the decline, although it took a herculean effort.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 22, 2008 12:57 PM

It is a monument to slavery, a house once owned by the Magruder family, one of the largest slaveholders in Maryland and P.G. County. It doesn't have much historical significance. Let it rot to the ground

Posted by: edward | June 22, 2008 1:00 PM

Let's tear it down and build that parkway...

Posted by: commuterz | June 22, 2008 1:28 PM

"'This is the Mount Vernon of the Maryland side of the river,' says Carol Tilch..."

Except that, well, _George Washington didn't live there_.

Not all old houses and plantations are historic. Some are just old.

Posted by: perspective | June 22, 2008 1:51 PM

Hello Marc,
My name is Bianca Floyd and I am the Museum Director of Poplar Hill on His Lordship's Kindness, another fine example of Georgian architecture in the county.

It sounds as though there are efforts/desires/plans to at some point restore Harmony Hall. It is a slow process for most historic properties in general.

As another reader noted, most of these grand colonial houses in Prince George's County are connected to slavery and African-American experience prior to emancipation. The work and contributions that African-Americans put into the construction and maintenance of those houses are an important part of its history. Like Harmony Hall, Poplar Hill has a rich history that tells the story of both the European and the African-American experience in the building of this county.

There are far more pressing issues such as health care, education, safety, the environment - and as museum director - I certainly understand the importance of these issues and appreciate why it takes so long to secure funds for something like historic preservation, when we need money for such things as new schools, health care services, or public safety. Whether funds are federal, state, or local - historic preservation may not be the most pressing need when it comes to resources. The support and contributions of the public - be it group, individual or corporate can help save many of these sites.

I hope Harmony Hall will one day be restored, as I also look forward to Poplar Hill on His Lordship's Kindness being restored. It takes time.

I don't think there is lack of interest, there is probably lack of sufficient resources as you noted in your article.

By the way, I am African-American, and author of "Records & Recollections: Early Black History in Prince George's County, Maryland and I invite you and would welcome a visit from you to Poplar Hill. We're on the web at:

History, historic houses such as Harmony Hall and Poplar Hill, and there relevance today makes for an interesting discussion. Has the Post ever done an article on this topic?

Posted by: Bianca Floyd | June 22, 2008 2:20 PM

Why not sell it off then to someone who can restore it and generate some funds if they're not going to use it or maintain it.

Posted by: Stick | June 23, 2008 8:21 AM

The Park Service uses fee money for project like this. Fee money comes from fees collected at park entrances from people visiting the parks. The decline of visitors to national parks contributes to the decline of fee money available to provide restoration to building such as this one.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 23, 2008 9:19 AM

One must wonder why Mr. Calhoun was kicked out of Harmony Hall by the Park Service when they had no idea what they were going to do better. No wonder, as Ms. Hazelwood says, things take a long time. Yes, they take a really long time when the Park Service shows a deficit of common sense and ability to plan.

I dont know what Hazlewood thinks we are to understand from $4 million in the Frederic Douglass Home. She seems to think only in dollar amounts. What did we get for that $4 million? How was that money spent? As I recall, the Douglass property is a far more modest property. $4 million? Granted, it has great historical significance, but who is watching the contracting?

Also, it would appear from the article that there are far too many separate citizens's organizations circling around this project. Why dont you all merge and then work on this one big project?

One way or another, I am very tired of all these dysfunctional communities and failed federal government projects. On the government project side, I think we will have some cleaning out of a slumbering federal bureaucracy after the next election. It cannot happen too soon.

Posted by: sonoma21209 | June 23, 2008 11:17 AM

You have a different culture living in Prince George's than in Virginia. If this site was related to the underground railroad or had some link to most of it's citizens of color, it might have survived.

Posted by: Jim | June 23, 2008 11:18 AM

That the 1730 structure known as "Harmony Hall" exists - it is forever linked with the African-American community based on its history and the early history of Prince George's County - whose colonial and antebellum history is based on the production of "tobacco" and slavery - you can not honestly separate the two. The difficultly in Prince George's County, as it has been with many colonial houses such as this - is honoring the contribution of the African-Americans to these buildings now considered historic sites.

Posted by: Bianca Floyd | June 23, 2008 12:06 PM

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