Photo credit: Christopher Weeks , 04/1993

Property Name: Swansbury
Date Listed: 7/15/1994
Inventory No.: HA-240
Location: 111, Beards Hill Road, Aberdeen, Harford County

Description: Swansbury's principal buildings, which are clustered together near the center of the 86.78 acre forested property, consist of a five-bay, two-story, multi-part, frame residence and several period frame dependencies. The oldest (west) section of the house was almost certainly a one-room, frame, c. 1760, vernacular dwelling. In the late 18th or every early 19th century, that house was completely engulfed in a locally unique, high-style federal addition. There was also a contemporary rear service wing, which was rebuilt later in the 19th century and has been remodeled since, and the result is a T-plan dwelling. Perhaps the most stylish structure from its period in Harford County, the house would not be out of place in such urban centers as Alexandria, Virginia; Charleston, South Carolina; or Salem, Massachusetts. The main section faces south and consists of a center-hall plan unite with one room to each side of the open stair; the principal entrance forms the center bay and is marked by a two-story, frame, projecting entrance pavilion with an open ground story and a small second-story room lighted by an elegantly trimmed Palladian window. In addition to the house's rare form, its trim, too, is without equal in the county and consists of a delicately carved Adamesque fanlight over the main door with a gouged metope-rope-and-star motif around the Palladian window. These motifs are repeated in the stairhall's chairrail and in the chairrail and window trim in the second-story porch room. In addition, the mantel in the ground floor room to the right (east) of the hall is embellished with a motif of stylized acanthus leaves. Swansbury also contains an array of eleven frame outbuildings (barns, wash house, poultry houses, meathouse, etc.) which seem to date from the early 19th century. A log structure, almost certainly built as slaves' quarters, stands nearby and probably dates from the 18th century. The main house sits on a slight rise and the grounds are dotted with ancient exotic specimen trees and shrubs. Visually, the entire complex remains virtually unchanged from its Federal-are appearance.

Significance: Swansbury, an extraordinary Federal-era frame villa, may be the most architecturally intriguing building in Harford County, Maryland. It was built and continuously owned by successive generations of the Griffith-Smith-Jay family, whose members had blood ties to the first Chief Justice of the United States and military and social ties to the nation's first president. The house is an important reminder and rare survivor of the optimism and enthusiasm that surrounded the city of Havre de Grace in the years around 1800. At this time the city was in serious contention to be chosen national capital and visionaries including Benjamin Henry Latrobe and Thomas Jefferson were planning "infrastructure" improvements to the region that would make the city the economic and commercial equal of Philadelphia and Baltimore. As a direct result of this, learned, internationally sophisticated men and women flocked to southeastern Harford County. With great optimism they in effect ringed Havre de Grace with a 7-mile arc of superb high-style villas, similar in every respect to contemporary developments in and around Philadelphia, Baltimore, and (once it was established) Washington, D.C. Seven such villas were built around Havre de Grace, with acreages that were originally continuous and unbroken, but only two remain in recognizable form: the brick Sion Hill and Swansbury. Swansbury's fame construction, overall form, and elegant details (projecting two-story entrance pavilion and interior and exterior carved trim) have no extant local equals. As for the others, Mount Pleasant, Bloomsbury, and Blenheim (all brick) have been destroyed and obliterated without a trace. The foundations only remain of Secretary of the Navy Robert Smith's villa on Spesutia Island. The Stumps' stone Oakington has been swallowed by three different 20th century additions and the entire house has been drastically altered and adapted for use as a drug rehabilitation center. Moreover, the entire ensemble at Swansbury remains virtually unchanged from its 1800 appearance, thus creating a remarkably clear and comprehensive image of life in the American Federal era at the very highest level. This is the only such grouping of outbuildings remaining in the county.




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