47 – Oak Hill, circa 1817-1836, Hagerstown, MD
Perched on a rise above The Terrace, settled among other grand homes set in elegant yards, is a Victorian confection of gables and porches, complete with a tower topped by a wrought iron crown that lifts several stories above the surrounding trees. Built of white-painted brick with blue trim, this home is one of the dominating structures in the north end. Originally part of an 1,800 acre tract of land, it was owned by the Rench family. On October 7, 1817, the property, according to the deed, consisted of …78 3/4 acres, houses, buildings, orchards, ways, water and water courses…, was purchased by Elie Beatty for $6,000. This tract was part of the land grant Settled in Time and was described as being on the road from Hager’s Town to Nicholas’s (Nicholson’s) Gap. The 1846 deed transferring the property to Sophia B. Merrick describes it as a farm or parcel called Oak Hill and prominently mentions a manor house; so Beatty must have built the oldest section of the present house, a two-story block with a basement kitchen. To this was added, sometime within the next twenty years, a two-story wing that made the house ell-shaped.
In 1858 the property conveyed to James Grove; and, ten years later, William T. Hamilton purchased it. T. J. C. Williams writes extensively of Hamilton in his History and Biographical Record of Washington County, Maryland:
…He had been elected to the Assembly in 1846, when he was twenty-six years of age…In a political career of forty-two years, he became not only the most conspicuous figure in the County, but the leading public man in the State…He was lean and wiry, with hair an inch or two in length standing straight out upon his head. In his manner he was earnest and vehement, with a loud voice, which he had under imperfect control.
Hamilton was elected Governor of Maryland in 1879, and Williams commented, …The Governor was brusque in his manner, and lacked tact in dealing with men. He had no toleration for those who did not measure up to his standard of civic virtue and he made no secret of his opinions…[he was] a most effective political speaker. His addresses from the stump were full of homely truths, expressed in homely language, which went straight home to the understanding and comprehension of his audience…all through them there was intense earnestness, which commanded attention relieved now and then by an apparently unconscious humor which produced uncontrolled laughter among the audience, while the gravity of the speaker’s face was unchanged.
Hamilton owned a lot of property in Washington County, including a mansion on Washington Street, which was torn down to build an addition to St. Mary’s School. He built the Hamilton Hotel downtown, and it was he who added to the original Oak Hill manor house to create the extravagant Gothic Revival mansion that we now see. He filled in the ell of the house by adding a dining room and the room above it, then added a third story, the tower and revised the exterior. He moved the kitchen from the basement to the north end of the house, incorporated an existing outbuilding into the three-bedroom guest house that extends beyond the kitchen and built the carriage house.
Oak Hill’s formal entrance faces the circular driveway on the opposite side of the house from the street. Sheltered by a flat-roofed entry porch are two doors flanked by arched panels and topped by a transom with spiderweb patterned muntins. This doorway opens into a broad entry hall. To the left (north) is a curved stairway with a column newel post and heavily turned balusters with octagonal panels. Two arched niches decorate the ascending stair wall. A deeply molded plaster cornice and a center medallion decorate the ceiling.
To the right is the library with square molded woodwork and corner blocks. Two glass doors lead to a porch and the gardens. Behind the library is the living room, which has similar glass doors opening into the gardens. Across the center hall, now narrower than at the entrance, is a formal dining room. Each of these rooms has a fireplace, all with different, reproduction mantels. The kitchen is to the left of the hall beyond the stairway. On the second floor, there are four bedrooms with two mid 19th century mantels and much original woodwork. The third floor has five bedrooms; and, above that, the tower rises another two floors. The first of these has round windows on three sides, and the top floor has double-arched windows on all four sides. The view is spectacular. It is probably the highest spot in Hagerstown.
Mrs. Julia Hamilton Briscoe occupied Oak Hill after the deaths of her parents, and it was she who planned and supervised the subdivision of the estate into Hagerstown’s North End. She named streets after the estate, her family and finally took the name, The Terrace, from the terraces of the garden of the house. The building now sits on an acre-and-a-half, surrounded by gardens and mature trees. In 1922 John Stonebraker and his wife purchased the house, and in 1941 Mr. and Mrs. Philo A. Statton acquired it. The Statton’s removed the wraparound porch the Hamiltons had built and replaced it with three separate porches which still exist.
In 1986 Lyle Brennen purchased Oak Hill. He hired 23 craftsmen to renovate the house, and they worked on it for an entire year. Mr. Brennen then furnished the home, only to learn that his business took him from Hagerstown. The house is again for sale.
Epilogue: Bruce and Kathleen Hynes, with their daughters Emily and Mary, purchased the house and its furnishings in 1994. They share their home with an active ghost, a thirteen or fourteen-year-old girl who jumps on the guest beds and runs up and down the second-floor hall. They believe this happy spirit was Clara Hamilton, who occupied the house in her teens and died before her time. In 1996, the Hynes discovered a dangerous bow in the brick exterior wall between the slave quarters and the carriage house. This turned out to be a failure in the logs of a brick-cased structure built in the mid 1750s. Unfortunately, the logs were so deteriorated that the eight foot by ten foot room could not be saved and the Preservation Design District Commission granted permission for its removal.
This article appeared in the Herald-Mail Sunday, July 4, 1993 as the 47th in the series.