BERLIN, Md. (AP) — A brick house that was a landmark here in 1752, then all but forgotten, is destined to become a landmark again, now that the doors are once again open at Rackliffe House.
The house was in ruins when the late Tom Patton had a vision to restore the mid-18th century plantation house in 2004. It was so overgrown, so much in shambles, that even Patton had second thoughts.
"I said to myself, 'This is a damn near impossible job to do,' " he said in a 2010 interview.
Because there were no 18th-century houses in Worcester County open to the public to educate visitors about 18th century life and architecture, Patton believed a rebuilt house with interior woodwork in the style of the period would give resort visitors and students a rare opportunity to step into the past. Mostly importantly, Patton envisioned a interactive media format that would engage youngsters and make their visit here fun, memorable and educational.
He formed the Rackliffe House Trust and, working with a team of volunteers, raised funds to restore and rebuild every aspect of the structure. All of the woodwork was handled by master craftsmen Larry Widgeon and his son, Shawn, who worked with Patton from the project's inception until his death. The Widgeons are still actively involved in the final phase of work, reconstructing and outfitting an early dairy or milk house near the main house.
The million dollar-plus project has saved what Patton described as the only seaside period home remaining in the mid-Atlantic states that's open to the public.
Under Patton's direction, the trust has leased the three-acre site from the Maryland Department of Natural resources for 50 years. The three-acre site is part of 110-acre tract that, in turn, is part of Assateague Island State Park.
Patton died in October 2010, before the official opening of the house last summer. Yet his legacy will remain alive for generations to come as folks tour the house and learn about life on the Shore that once was.
Trust president Joan Jenkins, who was enlisted by Patton just months after he started his project, has seen his vision realized because he was persistent and focused and knew what he wanted to accomplish. Rackliffe is what it is today because of his leadership and perspectives.
"I have worked very hard to do what Tom would have wanted," she said. "Sometimes, when I have a problem, I find myself asking myself 'What would Tom want? What would Tom do?' That's what guides me when I have doubts."
"By early August of last year," said Jim Rapp, director of Rackliffe House Trust, "we had the house open on Thursday afternoons to see how things would go. We put flyers on the Assateague Island Visitor's Center countertop, and we had as high as 40 people coming here. We tested the waters and have just opened now for this season. I think we are close to seeing the reality of Tom's vision of this becoming a coastal heritage center."
Built in about 1752, by Charles Rackliffe, (Patton's ancestor), the two-story and a half story 38-by-32-foot brick house has survived two fires -- the last in 1928 said to have been caused by an exploding still operated by a tenant -- as well as several not-so-sensitive remodelings. It also maintains a long-time reputation for being haunted.
"It could be the ghost of Jack (John) Rackliffe, a pretty mean person, who was supposedly murdered here by his slaves," said Rapp.
"The reconstruction of the milk house marks the end of major work here. Outfitting it and getting it open to the public is all that remains," he said.
Rapp believes the dairy may date to the 1700s, as it was listed on an estate inventory of 1808 as a brick milk house "being in good repair." An estate inventory of 1752 does not list a brick milk house on the property.
"There are a few little things left to do, like the installation of lighting fixtures. We are raising money to outfit the kitchen and the milk house," Jenkins said. "We want to get the kitchen and milk house up and running, but it takes money.
"I want to be here when school groups come in and show the kids our restored dairy (milk house) and tell them this was the refrigerator and the fireplace, with a kettle and crane, was the microwave of 1752," said Jenkins, laughing. "To furnish the milk house, we could use artifacts, churns, milk pans and such, and we do accept donations of items."
"Now that the dairy is almost finished, another thing we have on our wish list is to locate foundations of other buildings that were once here, as well as the graveyard."
"I hope we can get seasonal excavations going again with our archaeologist and board member, Aaron Levinthal," said Rapp. "He said this site is wonderful and rare because it hasn't been disturbed over the years and people just loved seeing an archaeological excavation under way."
According to Jenkins, visitors are surprised to see a period house so close to summer resorts. "We have heard from museum people who have cautioned us against 'filling the place up' with furnishings, to keep the rooms open. We have found people are really interested in the history of the house and stories about the preservation plan. There's a lot of people coming who have never seen an 18th century Eastern Shore house and it is exciting for them."
Though the site is just yards from the neighboring Rum Pointe Golf Course, trees and bushes isolate the house and grounds. Visitors can get a feel for the period and yet be just half a mile from the nearby Assateague Island Visitor's Center, on Route 611, at the base of the Verrazano Bridge leading to Assateague Island.
"The Rackliffe property is open every day, dawn to dusk, and you can walk down Tom Patton Lane and tour the grounds and see the exterior of the house and milk house," Rapp said.