Housing plans threaten mansion, neighnors say

November 15, 1990|By Glenn Small | Glenn Small,Evening Sun Staff

The beauty of a 170-year-old mansion in Chase will be destroyed if a plan to build 14 houses nearby goes through, according to residents in eastern Baltimore County. The historic mansion was designed and constructed by the man who built the Washington monuments in Washington and Baltimore.

Named after its first owner, Robert Oliver, one of Baltimore's first millionaire merchants, the Oliver House originally was a rustic hunting lodge, set on 500 acres beside the Gunpowder River, said John W. McGrain, a county historian.

Its designer and builder, Robert Mills, was one of America's first and most respected architects. During his lifetime, he designed and supervised the construction of more than 250 buildings, but only 15 to 20 remain.

"We don't want to see the beauty of the place ruined," said William Bukowski, president of the Oliver Beach Improvement Association, the group opposing the housing development. The residents called for the entire four acres to be preserved as a community park.

Ellen Jackson, the group's vice president, said the community already looks on the property as a park.

After residents last week lobbied the Baltimore County Landmarks Preservation Commission to place the house and four surrounding acres on the county's protected landmarks list, the commission agreed. But the panel issued a statement saying its intent was not to prevent development on the site, only to ensure the mansion's integrity.

Keith Randlett, an officer in the company that bought the house and grounds in August, said Emerald Development never intended to level Oliver House and wants to make improvements to it.

Although he had no designs to show what the houses will look like, he said they will be "more in character" with the mansion than the homes of those protesting his development.

Placement on the preliminary landmarks list means the Oliver House is protected from being torn down, but it does not prevent development, because the developer has the proper zoning.

However, James W. Constable, chairman of the landmarks commission, said listing the house would give the commission standing to oppose parts of the development when the developer comes before the county for building approval.

"My feeling is that anything by Robert Mills is of national importance," said Robert L. Alexander, a retired art history professor from the University of Iowa, and a Mills expert. "He was a really great American architect."

Oliver, a native of Ireland, was the first chairman of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. He used the house as a weekend retreat, and at one time, maintained 300 deer on the grounds.

Alexander, who is writing a biography of Mills, said he was surprised to learn that the Oliver House -- a two-story brick mansion sheathed in a stucco plaster -- still stands. Records indicated a serious fire occurred there in the 1860s.

"I was in Baltimore not too long ago and I went looking for the house," Alexander said. "I drove around for more than two hours, but I couldn't find it. I assumed it had been destroyed."

At last week's meeting, Constable asked if the developer would consider not building the homes closest to the mansion. Randlett replied that it would be difficult for financial reasons.

The commission was particularly concerned that the plans call for building homes directly in front of and behind Oliver House.

Michael Marino, an attorney for the developer, said the land has the zoning density to construct 22 homes. Randlett and Marino said they would look into the possibility of building fewer homes. "We're trying to work with the commission," Marino said.

Emerald Development submitted a building plan to the County Review Group in September, but members of the panel postponed making a decision until after an environmental impact study was done.

Because the Oliver House is so close to the Gunpowder River, it falls within the building guidelines of the Chesapeake Bay Critical Area law. A new CRG hearing date has not been set.

During their meeting, commission member Martin P. Azola said he felt uncomfortable that a landmark designation might jeopardize the developer's plans.

"Emerald is not the villain here," Azola said. "It's just a damn shame that the house and the land and the trees weren't listed years ago. Now here we are post-settlement, doing what we should have done years ago."

"We're a landmarks preservation commission," shot back Paul F. McKean, another commission member. "We're not a developers' rights organization."

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