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What's Up Magazine

Heading to Holly Hill

Apr 19, 2011 09:05PM ● By Anonymous

Its transformation from a modest frame dwelling into a larger one of brick reflects a pattern typical of early Tidewater residential construction.

Surrounded by well-maintained gardens and land once used for farming, this architectural gem and historically significant property is being preserved forever through a conservation easement generously donated by the Clagett family to the Maryland Environmental Trust (MET), a land trust dedicated to protecting the state’s natural, historic, and scenic resources.


History Lessons

Holly Hill’s fascinating history began with a 1663 survey of what was then known as Holland’s Hills for Francis Holland. The property was sold in 1665 to a Quaker named Richard Harrison, who was a planter and ship owner. A generation later, in 1698, Harrison presumably built a small house there for his son, Samuel, who, in 1713, added an 18-foot section onto what is now called Holly Hill. After Samuel’s death in 1733, the property passed through a succession of families, including the Scriveners and LeClairs, and the house was lovingly restored over the years. Brice McAdoo Clagett and his first wife, Virginia (former District 30 state delegate), bought the property in 1968 and added their own style to the house while preserving its eclectic charm. In 1977, Brice donated an historic-preservation conservation easement to the Maryland Historical Trust, thus protecting Holly Hill and most of the farm. However, it was a term easement that would one day end.

Brice Clagett’s estate has held the property since his death in 2008. His will provided for the farm’s permanent protection, which prompted the family’s conservation easement donation to the MET. Brooke Clagett, Brice’s daughter, currently resides at Holly Hill.

The house has some interesting and unexplained features, such as a trapdoor in one closet with a ladder that descends to a detached chamber in the basement. Various hypotheses exist as to its purpose, one being that it’s the end of a 10-foot underground tunnel once used for smuggling goods. The Clagetts say that former owners used it as a place to hide from Indian attacks. The truth remains a mystery.

Look closely and you’ll see some interesting details. Several windowpanes retain initials and signatures etched into the glass by former owners and their guests in the early 19th century. These also appear, along with some dates, on many of the bricks. Set into paneling are four original 18th-century paintings—three are landscapes and the fourth is of the house and surroundings as they were in 1730. The latter is said to be the oldest painting of a house in the U.S. Other works of art include original oils, watercolors, and brass rubbings.

Additional features original to this enchanting house include the wood floors, oak beams and paneling, faux-marble wood panels set into the walls, round-backed fireplace, and the ogee brickwork arches over two windows. Among the many beautiful antiques are some elaborate, early English and American pieces. A French wedding cabinet that dates to the late 1500s is particularly intriguing: a bride and groom are carved into the cabinet’s top panels and their respective fathers are carved into the lower ones.

Gorgeous Gardens

Holly Hill sits on 225 acres that, for many years, were used primarily for tobacco farming. Portions were rented to corn and soybean farmers. In 1968, Brice and Virginia Clagett designed and established a formal perennial garden. Today, trees and other plantings dot the grounds around the house. Rumor has it that the paths in the north lawn were fashioned after those depicted in one of the landscape paintings.

Brooke Clagett and her brother, John, have seeded about 20 acres for hay, and are working on garden for growing hops, which is used to make beer. They’re hoping to attract the interest of local breweries. The two also plan to reestablish the old orchards and selective timber harvests.

Holly Hill and MET

The conservation easement holds significance for the Maryland Environmental Trust because it represents an important milestone in its 43-year history: one thousand properties are now protected forever. As of press time, a total of 125,327 acres in the state have now been preserved. In December 2009, the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy and MET received their largest conservation easement ever: a 2,894-acre easement at Andelot Farm in Kent County was donated by Mrs. Louisa Duemling.

One of only five land-preservation programs in the state, the Maryland Environmental Trust is unique in that it’s the longest-running donation-easement program. The other four are purchased-easement programs, meaning easements or property are purchased from, rather than donated by, the landowners, who then give up rights to the property in exchange for money. “The donated-easement program is a complement to Program Open Space, the Rural Legacy Program, Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, and Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation,” says John Hutson, MET’s southern region planner and easement program manager. “There are many benefits of a charitable contribution of development rights through MET, including substantial tax credits and cost-effectiveness to the state.”

The benefits Hutson refers to are state and local tax credits of up to $5,000 per year (for each individual landowner) for up to 16 years. MET also maintains that its response time on land donations is quick. Whereas other programs may take years to complete a deal, the process usually takes MET less than a year. MET also allows for flexibility in the legal document; for instance, a landowner can make suggestions about what goes into the legal agreement.

“It’s not really a donation of land, as everyone thinks,” says Hutson. “It’s a donation of development rights in which the landowner retains the majority of their rights to the land, such as the right to sell the land, to build agricultural structures, and the right to farm and manage timber on the land. Each donation is customized and unique to each property. As soon as the documents are recorded, we go into our stewardship mode, which means we are available immediately for questions and advice. We frequently monitor our properties, making sure obligations are met—for example, that good conservation practices are observed.”

While most of the preserved land is private, some allow public access. Holly Hill provides limited public access: the house is open on a restricted basis but the surrounding land is off limits.

“In the long run,” says Hutson, “all of Maryland’s conservation programs are accomplishing the same goal: to preserve the beauty of our state and help family lands pass through the generations.”

Home editor Renee Houston Zemanski was inspired by the artwork, beams, and molding and history connected with this handsome 18th century home as well as the beautiful gardens.

{gallery}Holly Hill{/gallery}