UPPER MARLBORO, Md. -- Indoor plumbing was almost unheard of when Jefferson Patterson, a career diplomat, in 1932 commissioned his fabulous country retreat in rural St. Leonard, a tiny town nestled on the Patuxent River in southern Maryland. So were electric lights with buried power lines and luxuries such as elaborate cutting gardens and the Olympic-sized swimming pool off the kitchen.
"It was the first in Calvert County," said Susan Deck, one of several docents who give tours of the historic property called Point Farm.
Then again, Mr. Patterson's father was co-owner of National Cash Register. So coming up with the cash to build a 10,000-square-foot Colonial Revival mansion with eight bedrooms and nine baths, more than 20 outbuildings and 560 manicured acres on which to grow vegetables and graze prized Black Angus cattle wasn't really an issue.
No matter that he and the photojournalist he ended up marrying in 1940 would visit only a few times a year. (She preferred vacationing at her family's estate in Maine.) When you're that wealthy, everything needs to be a showpiece. Even the butler's pantry -- stocked with Staffordshire china and Yale dishes -- has an amazing view of the St. Leonard's Creek below.
It was a completely different story 30 miles north up the Patuxent in Prince George's County.
Not only did the 40 children in grades one through eight who attended the one-room Nottingham School in Upper Marlboro have to use outhouses, but they also had to carry water from a nearby spring. Sun streaming through the windows was the only source of light, and heat came courtesy of a pot-bellied stove in the corner, said docent Jerry Sweeney, whose grandmother and father went to school there.
Built in 1911 using recycled materials, the one-story structure cost $744.50 -- a little more than half of what Mr. Patterson and his wife, Marvin, daughter of B.F. Goodrich and great-granddaughter of the country's 14th Vice President John C. Breckinridge, paid for 19 hand-painted Chinese wallpaper panels in their elegant dining room. Most definitely a fraction of what the couple spent on the 4,500 books, many in different languages, stuffed into bookshelves in the paneled study.
But still, "Can't you imagine the fond memories they made here?" asked Mr. Sweeney, who was active in the school's $50,000 restoration/renovation in 2012. That project included replacing the roof and tracking down many of the school's original desks, chairs, books and school bell (which had made its way to Connecticut) from former students' attics and basements. Closed in 1947, it sat empty for almost 20 years before being purchased in 1966 by the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission. It's one of only two surviving one-room schoolhouses in Prince George's County.
Point Farm and Nottingham School may seem the difference between night and day when it comes to significant Maryland buildings. Yet both are integral to the state's architectural and cultural history, which is why they're among the 50-plus private homes, gardens and historic sites on the 2014 Maryland House and Garden Pilgrimage.
Now in its 77th year, the annual tour spread over five weekends -- it kicks off Saturday, with 15 stops in Prince George's County, including Nottingham School -- offers a look inside some of the state's most noteworthy properties. Many are gorgeous private residences that ordinarily would be off limits to architecture-loving looky-loos who aren't friends or family.
Among the homes featured next weekend, for instance, is Magnolia Knoll, a small, clapboard-sided Colonial Revival beautifully situated, across the street from Nottingham School, on the Patuxent River. Also known as the Turton-Smith House, it was built in the 1850s and is the only surviving 19th-century building in town. (A fire in 1901 destroyed most of the community's buildings.)
In nearby Croom, tourgoers get to peek inside two homes listed on the National Register of Historic Places: Waverly, a grand Victorian Italianate frame house built in 1855 that's still in near original condition (it offers a rare local example of period board-and-batten siding) and Bellefields, a Georgian manor home constructed in 1720. Major Benjamin Oden lived there during the War of 1812, and in 1814 it was the site of a meeting between Secretary of State James Monroe and Brig. Gen. William Winder.
House tours provide guests with a walk back in history, but this year's pilgrimage in Prince George's County should prove especially interesting to those who want to learn more about America's "second war of independence" against Great Britain. You'll get to see the grave of Dr. William Beanes, whose capture and release during the war played a role in Francis Scott Key composing the lyrics to "The Star-Spangled Banner." Also included is Darnall's Chance House Museum, a 15-room Georgian mansion built in 1742 in what was then the bustling port town of Upper Marlboro. In 1814, John Hodges, who lived there from 1800 to 1825, became the only person ever tried during the War of 1812 for treason for releasing British soldiers that had been incarcerated by local citizens. (He ended up being acquitted.)
The current house museum interprets the life and times of Lettice Lee Wardrop Thompson Sim, who lived there for almost 30 years -- with three husbands -- and whose portrait hangs in the paneled front parlor. When the house was constructed for her first husband James Wardrop, it was so grand that the household included 32 slaves to keep it clean, cook for guests and work the gardens. (It also had an underground brick burial vault.) Furnished with period pieces, Darnall's Chance offers a fascinating look at how 18th-century women -- gentry, middling and enslaved -- lived.
It's also proof of how a home's heritage can be forgotten. In 1858, the house was remodeled in the Italianate and Greek Revival styles, with a porch and columns. The change was so drastic, everyone pretty much forgot about its architectural significance until, abandoned in the mid 1900s, it was saved from demolition and restored by the state in 1986.
Older still is Kingston, a Colonial dwelling with four free-standing chimneys built by David Craufurd Sr., in 1735. Once an "in town" tobacco plantation, it, too, got a Victorian makeover in 1859 when a new owner added board-and-batten siding, porches and decorative verge board. Yet many of its original Colonial features remain intact in this lovely residence.
The honey-colored pine flooring and crown molding date to the early 1700s, as does the paneling and built-in china closet in the formal dining room. The wainscoting and archways decorating the hallway also are original.
Even new additions have the storied look of the past. In the remodeled kitchen, a Colonial mantel was reconstructed from a ghost outline discovered during construction; the unusual cross-hatching on the fireplace surround reproduces the design on a piece of old plaster.
The current owner grew up in the house but for many years lived in Texas, during which time he allowed the property to be used as a "frat house" for tenants. Needless to say, it fell into some disrepair. It took several years and "wonderful" Amish carpenters to bring it back to its former dignity with high taste and elegance.
Of special note in the living room is the signed Sardman grand piano. A family heirloom dating to the late 1800s, it wears a one-of-a-kind pyrogravure etching of a woman. And don't forget to look up when you stroll the front yard -- the towering cucumber tree there is the largest in the state.
Content, the house Mr. Craufurd's son, David Jr., built a half-century later just down the hill, also boasts many original architectural elements. It started life as a federal townhouse but over time grew to include a two-story front porch and a large north wing that now holds the dining room and kitchen. Take a second look at the corner cupboard -- the doors are made from an antique empire bed.
Located in the oldest part of the house, the living room originally was heated just by logs in the fireplace, which wears a black-and-gold Italian marble mantel that's identical to one in Sherwood Forest, President John Tyler's home on the James River in Virginia. To the right is a "pent," a tiny room that sits between two unmatched chimneys on the south gable side. It's filled with artifacts the owners dug up in the yard: sleigh bells, medicine bottles, keys and bits of 19th-century pottery.
Upstairs in the bedroom you'll find a Sheraton "tester bed" from the 1790s; a guest room holds a giant Whitney spinning wheel that dates to the same period. Actually, the house is chock-full of antiques, as the owners are avid collectors.
As with every other homeowner or docent leading a tour during the pilgrimage, Content's owners love to talk about their house and its ongoing, labor-of-love renovations. (No, it's not haunted, and yes, the hand-forged nails in the Georgia pine floors are original.) So don't be afraid to ask questions, there or anywhere else along the way.
It's the best way to make history come alive.
Gretchen McKay: email@example.com, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.