Historic St. Mary's City is site of modern tug of war over moving of 1840 house Both sides claim authenticity as aim

June 21, 1992|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff Writer

ST. MARY'S CITY -- It's a tiff by the standards of battle established in this settlement in the 17th century, when fences were burned, livestock slaughtered and homes pillaged. But two groups dedicated to preserving the history of this place have drawn lines in the earth over a plan to move a house.

On one side stands the Historic St. Mary's City Commission, the official, government-funded keeper of the state's oldest Colonial village. The commission has decided to move a 19th-century house because it says the house doesn't fit in a restored 17th-century village.

On the other is a community group -- the Historic St. Mary's Rescue Coalition -- that says the plan would plunder the very history it aims to preserve. Coalition Chairwoman Nancy Rogers says the coalition opposes moving the 1840 Brome-Howard House out of fear that such a move would destroy artifacts beneath it, including remnants of the home of Maryland's first Colonial governor, Leonard Calvert.

"What we're all about is underground," said Mary Jansson of Valley Lee, coalition vice chairwoman. "We're an advocacy group for what is underground. That's hard to protect."

The Historic St. Mary's City Commission's executive director, Burt Kummerow, says the commission wants to move the house because it does not match the historic motif of St. Mary's City. He said the plan is eventually to reconstruct the Calvert house, which also served for a short time as Maryland's first state house.

"I wouldn't do it if we were going to destroy the site," Mr. Kummerow said. "The site is going to get the attention it deserves. . . . This is a solution that's good for both structures."

The commission has voted to move the house but has yet to decide where to put it. St. Mary's College -- located right next to the historic site -- at one time expressed interest in the house as a home for the president, but has backed off.

The college's interest in the project raised the suspicions of the coalition, which was formed in 1989 to fight the school's plan to build a science building on an archaeological site. The coalition succeeded. The college president has since said the board of trustees intends to avoid building on historically significant sites.

That doesn't satisfy Ms. Rogers, who says that several expansion plans being considered by the college would infringe upon areas whose archaeological importance has yet to be explored.

The white, Greek-revival Brome-Howard House sits by the banks of the St. Mary's River, built by Dr. John Brome atop a rich archaeological site that includes remnants of several periods. Prominent among the sites is the Calvert house, built around 1635. Ten years later, the house became the center for "one of the most significant events" of Maryland's Colonial history, said Dr. Henry Miller, Historic St. Mary's City research director.

In 1645, the English Civil War reached the shores of the colony as Parliamentary Party supporter Richard Ingle raided St. Mary's City, which he considered a Royalist camp. With Governor Calvert away in Virginia, Ingle occupied his house and built a fort around it. Meanwhile, his forces killed livestock and plundered the homes of villagers who refused to pledge loyalty to the Puritan Parliament.

Dr. Miller said he's confident that moving the house will not damage the archaeological site beneath. Before the house-moving crew begins placing 15 jacks under the house, he said, the 2-foot-deep jack pits will be examined for archaeological artifacts. No other excavation will be needed to move the house, he said.

But Dr. Miller's predecessor, Gary Stone, who served as St. Mary's City archaeologist and research director from 1971 to 1987, has called the plan to move the house a "boondoggle" in a time of tight state budgets, using an estimated $200,000 that could be put to better use elsewhere in St. Mary's City. And, while he has high praise for Dr. Miller, Mr. Stone disagrees with the plan to reconstruct the Calvert house. He calls it a simplistic approach to exhibiting a complicated site, which includes six different communities from the 17th and 18th centuries side by side and atop one another.

"The whole thing is a layer cake," said Mr. Stone, who now works as a historian and site-planner for the state of New Jersey. Exhibiting the history of each layer so that the public can understand it is "as complex a historic preservation problem as there is," he said. "If you were to strip away everything and concentrate on one thing, how would you decide which of these things is most important?"

"It's a very complex issue, there's no question about that," Dr. Miller said. "We can't focus on everything. We have to limit it somewhat. . . . The question is, will it be clear" to the public.

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