Story and photos by Chris Basham
Tucked in the woods next to Harmony Hall Regional Center in Fort Washington, Md. is a mansion with stories to tell of the history of Prince George’s County’s culture and industry from as long ago as the 1660s. Purchased originally as a 500-acre tract, Harmony Hall now comprises 62.5 acres of open pasture land and a mansion built in the late 1760s, with additions made over the centuries. The property is also the site of what is believed to be the oldest man-made canal in the United States, leading to Broad Creek, a tributary to the Potomac River. Another structure on the property, Want Water, was reportedly built using the first known set of architectural plans in the U.S.
During the colonial period, Harmony Hall’s tobacco crop was worked by enslaved people. It thrived, alongside other Maryland tobacco plantations, until an oversilted Potomac River and other changes after the American Revolution caused tobacco to fall out of favor as a chief crop, said National Park Service Ranger Bambi Sears on a recent tour of the property. Sears explained that by the time Silesia, Germany native Robert Stein purchased the property in the 1890s it had become neglected. He and his brother Richard turned it into a working farm, until they sold the property in the 1920s to Charles Collins, who then built an addition to the mansion as part of his efforts to recreate a “southern plantation” atmosphere.
“It’s this gorgeous, Georgian architecture with an addition. It kind of muddies the story, a little bit,” said National Park Service Ranger Elizabeth Jackson.
There is more than a little actual mud, on site, as well. The property, currently owned and managed by the National Park Service, experienced extensive damage due to recent hurricanes, with downed trees making access to the Want Water portion of the property challenging.
Douglas Bradburn, founding director of the new George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate Library, called Harmony Hall, “a beautiful building with a great structure. It’s got a great history.” Tied in with other historic plantation properties in the county, Bradburn said, “it might be able to tell a story of the Chesapeake, from tobacco to wheat,” especially if slave quarters and other outbuildings on the property could be located and investigated for preservation and presentation to the public. “If you can locate the outbuildings, the slave quarters, it could be a very rich site.”
Over time, water damage has led to structural instability and the presence of black mold. Combined with lead paint throughout the structure, it is not currently seen as safe for visits by the public. There are people working to change that, however, in honor of Prince George’s County’s past.
“I’ve only been here two years. I’m not sure why we let it go,” said National Park Service National Capitol Parks-East Acting Supervisor Ranger Gopaul Nodjibail, who supervises Harmony Hall Manor along with 15 other parks between Fort Washington and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. “This site is like Arlington House, and like (several sites of African American significance in and around Washington, D.C.): The Carter G. Woodson house, Frederick Douglass’ house, and the home of Mary McCleod Bethune. If it were in the Midwest or West, it would be its own park, with its own supervisor, but it just gets lost,” surrounded by so many other local properties of historical significance.
Harmony Hall Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution is named after the property, and is working to raise awareness of its need for preservation and repair. Chapter Chaplain Carol Tilch lives right across the street from Harmony Hall. Her husband’s great-uncle was Robert Stein, who left the property in his brother Richard’s care while he went on expeditions with Admiral Robert Peary. Today, Tilch works with the DAR and the Silesa, Md. Citizens’ Association to maintain interest in the site.
“It’s just important. We want to do something about it We don’t want to put up a sign someday to say, ‘Here Once Stood,’” said Tilch, who is working to form a Friends of Harmony Hall organization to raise funds for work on the property.
Nodjibail said that the National Park Service has commissioned a structural research study of the property to find out what preservation efforts will entail.
“Our goal is to use as much of the original material as possible,” said Nodjibail. “That’s not a cheap endeavor.”
The Park Service is creating a “foundation statement” balancing the needs of “a lot of stakeholders (who) have varying, competing interests as far as how to use the site,” Nodjibail said. Once the foundation statement is completed in March, the Park Service will spend approximately two years developing a concept plan for the property.
“We’re looking for funding sources, now,” said Nodjibail. “It could become anything from a museum house to offices. We don’t know what we want to do with it yet, but we want to be sure it’s sustainable.”
Ongoing attention to historic sites in the area created by recreational trails such as the Star Spangled Banner Trail and commemorations of the War of 1812 “have raised an interest,” in colonial and early American sites such as Harmony Hall, said Jackson.
On a recent tour of Harmony Hall, Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker III (D) praised the property’s potential as a tool for educating the county’s youth on Prince George’s County’s role in national history.
“The War of 1812 was our shining moment--albeit we ran--but it’s a great opportunity to gin up support for the development of historic preservation in the county at places like Harmony Hall, as we also do development like at National Harbor,” Baker said. “For the kids who are going to Oxon Hill High School, they don’t have a clue (about the slave-owning heritage of Prince George’s County plantations). This would be really valuable.”
Nodjibail admits that the Park Service has yet to tap into the recreational interest the site could raise among the public, saying, “Harmony Hall is one of the sites that needs some care, here. We at the National Park Service want to make sure we can fold in early with county and local efforts, and not come in a year after the plans have been made.”