A Free Home From The State --for A Price

September 08, 1991|By Geoffrey W. Fielding | Geoffrey W. Fielding,Special to The Sun

It sounds great. You get to live in a state-owned house, free to come and go as you please. You don't pay any rent or real-estate taxes. And you can live there until you die.

Of course, there's a bit of a catch. You're expected to spend anywhere from $50,000 to $400,000 -- or more -- for this privilege. And the money's non-refundable.

Still, about a dozen Marylanders have participated in the state's Resident-Curatorship program. In exchange for restoring and maintaining a historic house that lies on state property, the residents live rent- and tax-free. And they can even conduct a business.

"The program is pure gold for the state of Maryland. Over the years, the curators have put more than $1.4 million into those properties, and that doesn't count the 'sweat' equity," said Ross Kimmel, who created the program in the early 1980s and is now supervisor of Cultural Resources Management for the state Department of Natural Resources.

The department, which runs the resident curator program, is the biggest landowner in Maryland. On its 333,000 acres are more than 1,000 buildings. Possibly 400 of the buildings have some historic value.

Some, such as Fort Frederick, have played an important part in Maryland's history. These have been restored and are open to the public. Others are rented or used by state employees to provide round-the-clock security for parks.

Many others have been neglected for years, but are not beyond repair.

Take the Gittings-Baldwin house, an old farmhouse near Baldwin in Baltimore County. Located in what is now part of the Gunpowder State Park, it had been occupied continuously since 1770, when the first section, a room with a sleeping loft, was built.

The building was in need of repair when the state acquired the farm in 1969 for the park. The walls bulged, the roof leaked and the termites feasted.

Then Lawrence and Agnes Bartlett stepped in.

The Bartletts, who wanted to retire in the country, offered to buy the Gittings-Baldwin house from the state. They were turned down, but they persisted and when the the state offered them a curatorship, they quickly accepted.

"There were really no surprises," 65-year-old Larry Bartlett recalled. "What we saw was a house that needed a new roof, new floors, new wiring, new plumbing, a new kitchen, new bathrooms, plastering and so on."

Within three years, the old stone farm house at the head of Long Green Valley was transformed from a weather-beaten near-ruin to an ultramodern house. It features all-electric heating with heat pumps, air conditioning, a fully equipped kitchen and a clapboard addition that houses a library.

The cost for the repairs: more than $400,000.

Mr. Bartlett has no regrets. "If I had to do it today I would still do it."

Not too far away, Dave Ward has signed up for a curatorship that, when renovations are completed, will allow him to lead a fairly normal life.

Mr. Ward, 43, is paralyzed from the neck down, the result of fall some years ago. His goal: to turn the Tollgate House on Jarrettsville Pike, just north of Loch Raven dam, into a "smart" house. Or, as the sign outside says, "Future Home."

Mr. Ward has been involved with the property, which predates the Civil War, for some 26 years. He was a tenant when it was part of a 500-acre farm and later when developers acquired it for a Columbia-like project.

After that project fell through, the state bought the property to expand open space around Loch Raven. And Mr. Ward moved back in, under the resident curatorship program, which allowed him to supervise the renovations of the house's interior.

"It was a chance," Mr. Ward said, "of giving me the ability to have some control over my life."

But not just for Mr. Ward. Once the fully automated house is finished, people with all kinds of disabilities can test the technology needed to control their environment.

Computers, sensors and other electronics equipment will respond to voice commands, a pressed button or even the blink of an eye. The equipment also will monitor the house, in case police or firefighters are needed.

Directing the 3-year-old project is Wilson Rivera, an engineering manager at Westinghouse. Some 20 corporations have volunteered support for the project, which so far has cost double the original $200,000 estimate.

"It's extensive and expensive. But we expect to move in sometime next spring. My wife, Terri, and I will occupy the first floor while the second floor will be a laboratory to test different products before they are installed downstairs," said Mr. Ward.

Steve and Dan Wecker also hope to have more than a home when they finish refurbishing the Elkridge Furnace Inn, which dates to 1774. The property, on the Howard County side of the Patapsco River, was taken over when the state built Interstate 195.

On the property's 16 acres are a former brick tavern with three distinct sections, two smaller houses that the brothers use as their homes, and two buildings thought to have been slave houses.

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