County looks to future of historic ‘Uncle Tom’s’ cabin

Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2006

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Gazette file photo
The log cabin attached to the house at 11420 Old Georgetown Road, North Bethesda, was once home to Josiah Henson, the slave who served as the inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, ‘‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

County officials will announce on Monday a Planning Board decision to buy a historic home in North Bethesda that once served as slave quarters made famous in the novel ‘‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” as well as discuss plans for its future.

The Planning Board voted unanimously on Thursday for $1 million to buy the home at 11420 Old Georgetown Road. Now officials are looking ahead to how the rest of the county may benefit from its history.

‘‘No one can understand the American history or our constitutional structure or even our culture without understanding the legacy of slavery in this country,” said Planning Commissioner Wendy Perdue. ‘‘So it’s my hope that this acquisition will facilitate further understanding and exploration of the legacy of slavery and the importance of the abolition movement.”

County planners said they will form a committee of historians and residents interested in African-American history after the final purchase, which is expected to happen in February, to find an appropriate reuse for the property. So far, ideas for the three-bedroom colonial located in the Luxmanor neighborhood, include turning it into a museum. The county will use money available for purchasing parks, if the state grant it applied for is not approved by February, said Bill Gries, land acquisition specialist for the county.

‘‘[A museum] will certainly be one way to use it,” said Gwen Wright, acting chief of the countywide planning division at the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission.

The committee will have to ensure the historic home can be used to educate people and interpret the history of the site, she said. The details of the committee are undetermined, but residents can get involved by contacting Park and Planning, Wright said.

Greg Mallet-Prevost, 64, former owner of the house and son of the original owners, said he would like the property to be used as an educational resource.

To participate
Residents interested in voicing their opinions on the reuse for the historic property at 11420 Old Georgetown Road should contact county planner Gwen Wright at 301-563-3413.
‘‘Slavery should certainly be an issue,” he said. ‘‘But maybe just a part of the early American experience of which slavery was a part of. There are a lot of lessons to be learned from here.”

But neighbors of the property have mixed feelings about the county owning the property. Some think opening the home to the public is a good idea, while others say there aren’t enough parking spaces to make good use of the property.

‘‘I would like [the house] to stay what it is,” said Walter Murphy, 75, who lives two houses away. ‘‘I don’t think there’s much room for it to do anything.”

The three-bedroom home with an attached log cabin and one-acre of land, was home to a slave named Josiah Henson for 30 years before he fled to Canada in 1830 through the Underground Railroad. Henson became the inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, ‘‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

Although Mallet-Prevost realizes the historic significance of the property, he said, the house has more stories associated with it than just the life of Henson. His parents, Marcel and Hildegarde Mallet-Prevost, owned the property for 43 years and his family’s history adds another layer to the significance of the house.

When walking into the small sitting room, Greg Mallet-Prevost points to the framed photos that display the eight generations of the Mallet-Prevost family, his grandmother’s rug that has been in the house since he can remember and the painting of his great-great-great grandmother playing her guitar.

‘‘All these things have stories,” he said. ‘‘The big thing is that when you live here and you experience this, the importance of the place is what’s inside of the house, not so much what’s outside of the house.”

And he said that’s why he sold the property, without feeling much disappointment.

‘‘When you live with that, grow-up with that, that’s what is important,” Mallet-Prevost said.

But it was Mallet-Prevost and his siblings’ schedules, as well as the cost of maintaining the house that also contributed to the decision to sell.

‘‘This doesn’t fit in with any of our plans,” he said, ‘‘and it’s very expensive to keep up.”

Mallet-Prevost teaches canoeing to children and instructors in Boonsboro, his sister Susanne Haley, 68, has 24 grandchildren that need her care and his oldest brother Andre Mallet-Prevost, 71, currently lives in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

His mother, Hildegarde Mallet-Prevost expressed that she wanted one of her children to take over the property before she died in September, Mallet-Prevost said.

‘‘We made it clear that none of us could do that,” he said.

After deciding to put the property on the market in October, the family received a few other offers, but Mallet-Prevost said he thought it would be best to open the house to the public.

‘‘That way we can enjoy it and everybody else can enjoy it too,” he said.

Betty Spano, a realtor with Realty Executives One in Gaithersburg, said there were two other offers and she showed the property to four different groups. Spano, whose parents were ‘‘dear friends” with Marcel and Hildegarde Mallet-Prevost, said she had been aware of the historical significance of the property ever since she was a child.

‘‘I’m extremely happy that the county is purchasing this,” she said. ‘‘I think it should be for all of us.”