A Summer Place On The Bay

POSTMARK: HIGHLAND BEACH

September 06, 1992|By MARILYN MCCRAVEN

Towns are founded for all sorts of reasons. But how many begin because of a racial snub?

Highland Beach, just southeast of Annapolis, was founded i1893 by Charles R. Douglass, a son of abolitionist and Maryland native Frederick Douglass. Town history has it that after a day of sightseeing in the area, the younger Douglass and his wife, Laura, were refused service at the Bay Ridge Hotel because they were black.

The couple found a black farm family just over the bridge from the Bay Ridge who offered them refreshments, and, coincidentally, were interested in selling property. The younger Douglass purchased 26.4 acres right along the Chesapeake Bay, subdivided it and sold lots to friends. It would become a resort for those who wanted to escape the heat of the city, and the segregationist practices of other resorts.

In an ironic twist, when the Bay Ridge was torn down, wood from the hotel was used to build two Highland Beach houses, including Frederick Douglass' Twin Oaks, named for the magnificent trees that graced the property. He died before he had a chance to live there.

Today Twin Oaks has been renovated by restoration architect Charles Bohl, and his wife, Barbara, who live there and placed it up for sale this summer for $600,000.

Prices even of non-historic Highland Beach houses have steadily climbed in the past decade as demand for waterfront housing soared. During the boom '80s, some longtime landowners feared that a developer would buy up the town. They pointed to the gradual influx of newcomers -- including white residents -- and the younger generation's lack of interest in the resort. But it appears that their fears were unfounded.

While there has been some new construction, it's more common for third- and fourth-generation landowners to convert the old cottages into large, modern homes. And they found that the newcomers wanted pretty much to keep things the way they have been for years: There's a guarded gate that carefully screens visitors to the enclave, and a community rule that forbids construction on the weekend to keep it quiet.

Highland Beach is still a resort community in many respects. There is no post office or church in Highland Beach, nor are there any stores, restaurants or other businesses. The main road is named for the Douglass family and the few other streets are also named for famous blacks. There is a small community park on the bay that includes a fishing pier.

The town's population swells to 200 to 300 on summeweekends -- thanks to family and friends visiting the homeowners. In the winter Highland Beach resembles many summer resort towns: It's almost empty. No one -- including the government -- seems to know exactly how many people live in Highland Beach year-round. A botched 1990 U.S. Census report erroneously credited Highland Beach with 102 full-year residents; had just eight in 1980. Residents' estimates vary, too, in part because neighboring Venice Beach and Highland Beach are often lumped together. Resident Ted Chase says between the two villages, there are maybe 50 full-time residents.

Norma Jorgensen, 75, is a Washington native who has spent the past 74 summers at the beach. She had wanted to retire to "The Beach" after her husband died several years ago, but her daughter nixed the idea. "She thought I would be alone too much," said Mrs. Jorgensen, who lives at the beach from June to October, and with her daughter in Gary, Ind., the rest of the year.

Jean Langston, a Prince George's County school counselor, saishe had second thoughts about living there year-round when her husband, Ray, a traveling salesman, first proposed the idea.

"I thought, 'Who will I talk to when he isn't here?' " she says. They had a Washington telephone exchange installed so that when she's lonely she can call family and friends without long-distance charges.

Ms. Langston points out that highway construction -- particularly Interstate 97 -- has made commuting to Baltimore and Washington more manageable. She sees easy access to and from the town as a key attraction to those wanting year-round beach living. Few expect Highland Beach to remain isolated for long.

Recently, the residents have begun working to help promote the town's centennial -- to be celebrated next year. A July crab and shrimp feast fund raiser brought out a crowd of 300 that enjoyed a historical slide show.

"The significance of Highland Beach," said Ms. Langston, "is tha27, 28 years after slavery, here were a group of black people who had the education and know-how who put together a community like this. This kind of history is not in the history books."

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