Developer sees cannery as diamond in the rough Old Seneca plant to be restored

November 15, 1992|By Nancy Menefee Jackson | Nancy Menefee Jackson,Contributing Writer

As a boy, Stephen B. Billings fished off the point behind the old S. J. Seneca cannery building in Havre de Grace.

Now, as project manager for the Seneca Point Luxury Condominiums, he sits a few feet away in a makeshift office where blueprints cover the walls, and workmen install a counter as he talks.

On the town's ever-changing waterfront, one thing remains constant -- Mr. Billings' fascination with the historic cannery building.

"I've always been intrigued by the site," he says. "I always thought there would be a good use for that building. It's one of the nicest pieces of property in the whole Chesapeake Bay region."

The company Mr. Billings works for -- Headwater Construction of Newark, Del. -- plans to restore the cannery as the final phase of a three-year condominium project. Headwater is building 54 condominiums and 40 boat slips on the site next to the old cannery in the project's initial phase, then plans to turn its attention to the 30,000 square feet of history.

The cannery, reminiscent of the now-famous Camden Yards, was built between 1878 and 1885 for S. J. Seneca as part of his fruit-packing and canning operation. In the huge spaces, a machine invented by Seneca made a complete can, soldering top and bottom and, powered by four steam engines, spat out 30,000 cans a day.

These days, when Mr. Billings looks out over the old cannery warehouse, he envisions all sorts of possibilities: a seafood restaurant, a mix of shops, a mini convention center, even a horse racing simulcast site. And, oh yes, an office for himself on the top floor "with a glass wall and a view of the river."

Headwater most likely will convert the warehouse into a restaurant and shops, Mr. Billings says.

The interior of the building, which has been vacant for about 15 years, is in good condition. Massive, hand-cut chestnut pillars and beams dominate the huge spaces. Solid oak flooring, scarred by years of industrial use, stretches away into dusty space. "Wouldn't this make a great barroom floor?" Mr. Billings asks.

Outside, on a trash-strewn concrete loading dock stretching toward the river, the scraps of metal and broken chairs are forgotten, replaced by visions of white tables with checkered tablecloths and customers in dock shoes. "Wouldn't this be a great place to dine outside?" Mr. Billings asks.

The back of the building, made of granite blocks, faces the Susquehanna River. Huge stone buttresses throw up a challenge to the passing decades, a contest the supports have easily won. The building fronts St. Johns Street, where passers-by have grown accustomed to the classical brick facade with pilasters and recessed panels and a recessed gable. Granite lintels frame the windows and doors throughout its three levels.

Mr. Billings says several potential tenants have contacted him about the warehouse. He declined to say how much the company paid for the cannery and for the roughly three acres slated for condominiums.

The brick on the upper floors of the warehouse needs to be repointed, and Mr. Billings says the biggest expense will be installing the necessary sprinkler systems to meet fire code requirements. But because the building has been used continually for warehouse space since the demise of the canning industry, it has updated electrical and plumbing systems.

The Seneca Point project won praise from Stan Ruchlewicz, director of the Havre de Grace Department of Planning. "We're ** looking with great interest on this project," he says. "Everybody can't wait to get a solid reuse into that place."

Mr. Ruchlewicz adds that though the cannery portion of the project has yet to come before the planning commission, he has had no objection to the condo plans. And he believes the town needs another restaurant.

The company hopes to break ground for the Victorian-style condos next month. The two- to four-bedroom condominiums will be offered from $149,990 to $209,000. Boat slips will be extra.

Mr. Billings says the company has deposits for 40 of the condominiums. While local residents bought some, the development has also attracted commuters, especially those from Philadelphia and New Jersey.

Such development raises comparisons to another once-small historic waterfront town -- Annapolis.

"Havre de Grace has been a hidden treasure," Mr. Billings says. "We have huge amounts of people who summer here in sailboats."

But, he adds, "I don't think we want to become the next Annapolis."

Mr. Ruchlewicz isn't bothered by such comparisons. The two towns are different, he says, pointing to Havre de Grace's solid industrial base and Annapolis' government functions. "We have a limited waterfront. We're pretty constricted; we won't sprawl," he says.

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