Historic Westminster City Hall to be accessible to the disabled

OLD HOUSE GETS NEW LOOK

October 18, 1993|By Donna E. Boller | Donna E. Boller,Staff Writer

The front parlor of the Westminster mansion where the Billingslea children used to play and where George W. Albaugh lay in state amid banks of flowers after his death in 1933 is covered with construction dust.

So is the back parlor, where the baby grand piano stood.

That's because construction workers are drilling and hammering the historic building, which became Westminster's City Hall in 1939.

The work includes an elevator and wider doors that will make City Hall accessible to the disabled, a more formal entrance for the heavily used back door and restoration of a 19th-century parlor atmosphere to the two rooms that will be used for City Council meetings.

The project is expected to be finished Jan. 1. Completion had been planned for late fall, but city government caused some delays by asking the contractor to wait until office space can be shifted, said Thomas B. Beyard, planning and public works director.

Construction cost on the bid by North Point Builders Inc. is $251,670. Furnishings -- lights, carpet and chairs -- are projected to cost $30,000. Mr. Beyard said he hopes to save part of the construction cost through change orders and to apply the savings toward furnishings.

A drawing of the building's layout in 1909, when it was the home of George W. and Ella Troxel Albaugh, hangs on a wall in the first-floor hallway. The drawing and old family photos are a gift of George Albaugh Billingslea, Mr. Albaugh's grandson and a historian who lives in Ruxton.

Mr. Billingslea, who was born in 1923, occasionally played in the house as a youngster.

"All I remember is eating and maybe sleeping over here," he said. But he has a store of family lore drawn from memory, interviews with family members and research.

Mr. Albaugh bought the house in 1909 from the estate of Sallie Longwell, daughter of Col. John K. Longwell, who had built the house in 1842 and named it Emerald Hill.

Mr. Albaugh was skilled at making money in real estate. He owned numerous farms around the county, and the acquisition of Emerald Hill gave him property that extended south to Main Street and east along Willis Street to the Courthouse. He was also co-owner of Albaugh and Babylon Grocery Co. and owner of Smith and Yingling Canning Co.

Mr. Billingslea, his two brothers and sister lived on Willis Street with their parents, Robert K. and Mariana Albaugh Billingslea.

Mr. Billingslea said his grandmother was very frail, "a sweet old lady." And he tells a story that illustrates his grandfather's nature.

The household rule was that plates were to be cleaned at all meals. At one breakfast, young George Billingslea was served fried eggs with runny yolks. He couldn't eat them. A sympathetic maid tried to slip the plate out under her apron, but Mr. Albaugh stopped her at the door.

"What've you got?" he demanded.

Silently, she pulled back the apron, revealing the plate of eggs.

"Give him a piece of bread. He'll eat them," Mr. Albaugh ordered.

The youngster ate the eggs. But for many years afterward, he refused to eat a fried egg unless the yolk was cooked hard.

Mr. Albaugh never held political office, but he was influential behind the scenes. Politics was the reason for the three or four 50-gallon barrels of whiskey in the basement of Emerald Hill.

It was common in the early years of this century for candidates and their supporters to treat voters to drinks on Election Day.

Mr. Albaugh was "quite the Democrat," Mr. Billingslea said. He doled out the contents of his whiskey barrels to help favored candidates.

Mr. Albaugh died in 1933. The family put the house on the market a year later, but during the Depression, it attracted no buyers. It remained empty until the city government bought it in 1939.

The city government bricked in the closed porch at the rear of the building. That area most recently contained the city housing and recreation offices, but they have since been moved away from City Hall.

Council members and architect Martha Jones have planned the renovation to modernize the council meeting room while preserving or restoring the old parlor's appearance.

The contractor cut out the partition that divided the two rooms. Workers then had to fit in a large steel beam to hold up the floor joists.

"That was a very difficult project," Mr. Beyard said.

The two fireplaces that heated the rooms for the Longwell and Albaugh families will remain as decorative features. Mr. Beyard said the radiators that now furnish heat will be replaced by forced hot air.

Fluorescent lights put in by an earlier city government will be removed and replaced by incandescent hanging lights, wall sconces and recessed lights on the council work table.

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