In a few weeks, Dani and Justin Ritthaler will pack up their belongings and leave city life behind. The couple and their two children, ages 5 and 10, are moving to a secluded community in Howard County, trading in their 1,230-square-foot South Baltimore rowhouse for nearly twice as much space and much more land.
But this isn’t your typical flight-to-the-suburbs story.
The Ritthalers have spent the last five years renovating a nearly 200-year-old farmhouse that belongs to the Maryland State Department of Natural Resources’ forestry division, and in exchange, they’ll live there as long as they choose, mortgage- and rent-free. Warfield Farm, as it’s known, is one of more than 40 other state-owned properties included in this state program. The arrangement began about 40 years ago and has been replicated in other states, including Delaware, Massachusetts and Virginia, due to its success preserving historic sites at no cost to taxpayers.
Here’s the caveat: Maryland requires its “curators” to pump at least $100,000 into renovating the homes, not including the “sweat equity” they may spend on physical, mental and emotional labor. And no matter how much a person contributes, they never obtain the property’s title, meaning a curator’s heirs have no claim to the house at the end of a lifetime lease.
For the Ritthalers, the deal makes sense. As Warfield Farm’s curators, they have uninhibited access to the surrounding 12 acres of land plus the adjacent Patuxent River State Park land — a perk otherwise out of their price range, especially in a post-COVID real estate market. The children will grow up riding tractors, bird watching and exploring scenic trails. They hope to add chickens, goats and other small animals to the family someday.
“There’s something magical about the property — it’s been our little piece of paradise, even with a hard renovation,” Dani Ritthaler said. “Every time we’re out there, we feel at peace. We have this vision, and we see what it’s going to be.”
At the same time, she wouldn’t recommend the experience to the faint of heart: “It’s been a very long journey,” Ritthaler said. “I would only recommend it to someone who has a passion for it. You could run out of steam really fast.”
The Ritthalers estimate having spent at least $175,000 on the farmhouse remodel so far, not including the countless hours of labor, planning and commuting they’ve taken on, too. With the exception of some structural carpentry work and an HVAC system installation, they have assumed responsibility for almost every inch of the old house, which dates back to around 1850 and includes three bedrooms, a 19th century bank barn and a small backyard pond on site.
Dani, a former high school art teacher, and Justin, an engineer, have applied her creative touch and his mechanical skills in entirely new ways. She’s installed floors, put up drywall and mapped out the place using a three-dimensional sketching app. He tackles more of the grunt work — demolition and heavy lifting, for example — as well as the planning for the home’s mechanical systems. For what they don’t know how to do, they turn to YouTube.
A typical remodeling job in the Maryland Resident Curatorship Program typically costs anywhere from about $200,000 to $400,000, said Peter Morrill, the state’s cultural resources and curatorship manager. Most include at least five or six acres and are attached or adjacent to state parks. Generally, the sites are located in rural areas outside of cities and towns and are spread all across the state, from Western Maryland to the Eastern Shore.
For homes in the hottest residential markets — Howard and Montgomery counties, for example — the application process can get competitive, Morrill said. Applicants must include resumes, financial disclosures, cover letters, narrative budget proposals and a scope of work plan, and an in-person interview is required.
From there, Morrill and a small committee wade through the applications and give each one a score. They try to select the applicants who seem like the best “partners,” he said, as well as those that seem capable of restoring the properties and following a schedule.
For homes in more remote parts of the state, the application process is less fierce, Morrill said. One property, in Cecil County’s Old Bohemia Wildlife Management Area on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, has been without a curator for nearly a decade. Morrill considers the old farmhouse, once owned by the Roman Catholic Church, a steal. But the location, he thinks, has dissuaded interested parties from following through.
Morrill said the program has been difficult to advertise since the amount of available inventory varies year to year. In some cases, a few properties become available at a time; other years, there are no openings — with the exception of the Old Bohemia Tenant House.
Generally, curators spend between five and 10 years completing a renovation, Morrill said, but some highly motivated curators finish quicker. Some have moved into campers on site so they can stay close and avoid the long commutes that have become central to the Ritthalers’ experience. Others rent temporary space nearby or hang on to their mortgages until they’re ready to move.
The curatorship program began in 1982, when a married couple, looking to restore a historic home near Gunpowder Falls State Park, asked a realtor to look into who owned it. When Larry and Agnes Bartlett learned of the state’s ownership, they wrote a letter to Maryland Gov. Harry R. Hughes’ administration asking if they could fix it up on their dime in exchange for lifetime tenancy.
In all, the restoration of the Gittings-Baldwin House in Baltimore County would cost the Bartletts more than $400,000, according to news clippings. Larry Bartlett told The Baltimore Sun in 1991: “If I had to do it today, I would still do it,” according to his 2011 Baltimore Sun obituary.
As more state properties came online, Maryland officials beefed up the rules and attached more guidelines. All renovation work, for example, must comply with the secretary of interior’s standards for historic preservation, and curators are required to “share” their restoration experiences and open the property up to the public three to five times a year (Dani Ritthaler says her use of Instagram and a personal blog count toward this goal, too). Expenses are typically not tax deductible and no historic preservation tax credits have yet been made available to curators, though individuals with properties eligible to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places can now apply for state historic preservation tax credits.
So who exactly is moving into these homes?
“It’s an interesting cross section of society, and many are general contractors,” Morrill said, acknowledging that most of the curators are white and middle class. “There’s a selection of people who are nature enthusiasts who want to live in a park setting, and then you’ve got your more standard history nerds. It runs from people doing ‘DIY’ sweat equity to fairly wealthy people who hire out 90% of the work. There’s a range of different folks.”
For curator Robert Albiol, the opportunity presented itself at the right time. An anthropologist, Albiol knew as early as 1984 that he would need to live within his means. That’s when he came across a house in the middle of a forest just outside of Washington, D.C., and decided he could afford take it on.
Albiol and his wife, Loreto, became the second-ever state curators and saw it as their duty to preserve a slice of history. Their Seneca Creek State Park home once belonged to George Washington’s stepdaughter and would become a key foothold for the Union Army during the Civil War, where soldiers staved off encroaching Confederate forces from capturing the nation’s capital.
In all, Albiol said he’s spent at least $250,000, but that doesn’t include all the extra baggage that comes with the expense.
“It’s not free; it’s a lot of work, it’s a lot of stress, and it can be dangerous,” Albiol said. “You’re in a state park, and sometimes there are snakes, wild animals, lead, asbestos.”
What’s kept him there, Albiol said, is the conservation mission at the heart of it all: “I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else,” he said. “It’s a beautiful house now, I live inside a state park, it’s historic, and I’m very proud that we restored it.”
When a lifetime lease ends, Morrill said a few different outcomes are possible. In one case, when one couple moved away for a job in California, the state converted the site into a nature center at Patuxent River State Park, not far from the Ritthaler’s Warfield Farm. After the Bartletts aged out of the property, state officials converted it into housing for Gunpowder Falls State Park staff (as far as Morrill knows, that house has remained free from the alleged scandals there involving the former park manager, Michael Browning, who was convicted earlier this year of a fourth-degree sexual offense involving a former park employee and acquitted on more serious charges of rape and assault on park grounds). Other times, they’ve found new tenants to finish still-incomplete jobs.
In some cases, Morrill said, curators’ children grow up and take on houses of their own, an outcome he considers among the best.
“I wish we had the resources to care for all of these as the state of Maryland, but our parks have been super under-resourced for a long time, and this was a creative way to keep some historic sites for folks to enjoy,” he said. “This is one tool in the toolbox for caring for these sites.”