Oliver Beach residents seek to preserve historic site Purchase of home for park considered

December 30, 1990|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,Baltimore County Bureau of The Sun

In 1820, a prosperous Baltimore merchant built a house along the Gunpowder River as a weekend get-away where he could entertain friends, hunt game and pursue the life of a gentleman farmer.

The house of Robert Oliver, importer, investor and public citizen, still stands.

But the four acres that surround it have become the focus of a battle between a developer who wants to build 13 homes there and a community that wants them to remain as open fields.

"We don't like to see something of that magnitude coming in here. It'll ruin the historic integrity of the whole area," said William J. Bukowski, president of the Oliver Beach Improvement Association, which represents 200 homes.

State and county officials say that because of the community's concern, the historic character of the property and the need for open space in the area, they are seeking ways to purchase the house and land to turn it into a park.

"I think it's a necessity for the county to start preserving its history and its heritage, and this is about as good a place as any to start doing that," said Baltimore County Councilman Vincent Gardina, D-5, whose district includes the property.

Mr. Gardina and state Delegate E. Farrell Maddox, D-6, began looking into the possibility of purchasing the site a few weeks ago after a meeting with Oliver Beach neighbors.

The property would cost about $400,000, Mr. Gardina said.

Mr. Maddox plans to seek $200,000 in state funds as an initial step. Mr. Gardina said he will seek county matching funds of about $200,000 to be included in next year's budget.

Both officials said the site could be used as a public park or some type of historic attraction, with tours open to the public.

They acknowledged that securing funds may be difficult, with the state and county facing extremely lean budget years. But they said the option is still worth exploring.

"We won't know what the chances are if we don't at least try," Mr. Maddox said. "It certainly is worth preserving. It's got a lot of history to it."

"I don't think $200,000 of county money is so unreasonable for four acres with so much history behind it," Mr. Gardina added.

Keith Randlett, a partner in the Emerald Development Corp., which is developing the site, said he would be willing to consider such an offer.

"We're staying open to any offer," he said.

But Mr. Randlett said last week that he had yet to meet with any county or state officials and that he is moving ahead with plans for a development of 13 Victorian-style three- and four-bedroom homes selling for $133,000 to $165,000.

"We know the history of the place and its importance to the community," he said.

Paul M. Blitz, a local historian and archivist, said Robert Oliver was born in Ireland, came to the United States at 26 and made money in importing, real estate and bank stocks.

He was a member of the early board of directors of the B&O Railroad, helped finance the fortification of Fort McHenry and was a friend ofthe Marquis de Lafayette, who once visited the Oliver House, Mr. Blitz said.

The white, two-story, Federal-style structure was designed by Robert Mills, thought to be the first native-born, professionally trained American architect. Mr. Mills also is credited with designing the Washington monuments in both Baltimore and Washington, according to county records.

The house, which is in the Maryland Historical Inventory of properties, was added to the Baltimore County Landmarks Preservation Commission's preliminary list of landmarks on Nov. 8 after neighbors petitioned for it to be included.

Being listed means the commission has a say in the approval process the developer must complete before obtaining the necessary building permits, said John W. McGrain, historic preservation planner for Baltimore County.

Mr. Randlett sees the proposed development as a plus for Oliver Beach, a waterfront community where many summer homes have been converted to year-round use in recent years.

The 23-room Oliver House, which for years has been home to four apartments, will remain intact, he said. The apartments also will remain, but will receive $30,000 in exterior and interior renovations. A real estate sales center will be located on the first floor, he said.

The property is zoned for residential development that would allow 22 houses on the four acres, Mr. Randlett said. But the firm decided after purchasing the site in August to build fewer houses with larger lots because market studies indicate that's what buyers want, he said.

"It's going to make the value of all those houses go up," he said. "It's going to be something the community will feel good about."

But Mr. Bukowski said the community would welcome a state-county purchase. Residents are concerned that the modern-day look of the new houses and their proximity to each other will clash with the presence of the sprawling old Oliver House, which is seen as the architectural centerpiece of the community, he said.

"There's so much land around, the feeling is, why do they have to come and develop here?" said Mr. Bukowski.

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