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Inside The Ultimate House-Sitting Gig

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An old out building at the Stephenson House in Susquehanna State Park.
Jacob Fenston
An old out building at the Stephenson House in Susquehanna State Park.

A unique program in Maryland lets people who love old historic houses live in them for free. Under the state's Resident Curatorship Program, he fixes up the old house, and the state of Maryland gives him a lifetime lease — zero dollars a month. It's a way to restore these historic properties without spending precious taxpayer dollars. Now, 30 years after the program started it's proven so successful that states up and down the East Coast are copying it, including neighboring Virginia.

The program got started in 1982 when Agnes and Larry Bartlett were scouring the state of Maryland looking for their dream house.

"I guess for most of my adult life I've wanted an 18th century house," says Agnes Bartlett.

Her realtor got word of a derelict old farmhouse in Baltimore County, but wasn't sure who owned it. The Bartletts went to look at the house on a windy, dull grey Thursday. A stone house built just after the Revolutionary War, it was in terrible shape, but they loved the historic details and bucolic setting.

Then the discovered who the owner was: the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. The house was located in a small sliver of Gunpowder Falls State Park. But the Bartletts were undeterred. They went to the Department of Natural Resources, and convinced state officials to let them live in the house for free if they promised to fix it up.

Now, 30 years later, the Bartletts have restored the house beautifully — it looks like a museum. They spent around $500,000 on the repairs. But Bartlett says it was a good deal — they got to spend three decades there.

"We lived in this house when we had our 40th anniversary, our 50th anniversary, and our 60th anniversary," says Bartlett.

It was a good deal for the state, too. After success with the Bartletts, Maryland quickly expanded the Resident Curatorship Program. Today, there are more than 50 houses that have been restored, or are in the works.

Emily Burrows with the Department of Natural Resources says the state owns lots and lots of land. "Wildlife management areas, state parks, state forests, natural resource management areas. And that land comes with a lot more than just trees and bunny rabbits. It comes with houses."

And the state can't afford to restore, or even maintain, all those houses, even though some are historic gems.

Restoring an old house can be a lot of fun, according to Myron Horst, who lives with his wife and six kids on a farm in Monocacy Natural Resource Management area in Frederick County.

"I used to be a carpenter, and I did work for people, and then when we were done, I never saw it again. It was just a job. But this is different," says Horst.

They had a lot of work to do to make the place habitable. Because the Horsts don't own the house, it will eventually go back to the state; they can't pass it on to their kids. But that doesn't bother Myron Horst, even though they've put about $150,000 of work into the place.

"If you look at a house just as an investment, you're just looking at money, whereas, this is, you're looking at it as a place to live, to enjoy, to retire, and it's also a service to our fellow citizens," says Horst.

Back in Baltimore County, Agnes Bartlett is packing up and moving out of the house in Gunpowder Falls State Park. Her husband Larry passed away last year, and now Agnes, who's 85, is relocating to a more manageable apartment.

"Just yesterday, the man came and took most of the furniture. The auctioneer," says Bartlett, showing the empty parlor.

The state is still figuring out what do with the property now, but is looking at opening the restored house to public use, possibly as a state park events center. Bartlett says she's proud she was able to help save this old house for future generations to enjoy.

"You can't let history be destroyed. It just kills me when I see old buildings being torn down and something new being put up, and so often the newer architecture is not pleasing. I just like old things — of course, I'm in that category myself at this point."


[Music: "Home" by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes from Up From Below]

Photos: Resident Curatorship Program

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