At School's Ruins, New Lessons To Learn

POSTMARK: PATAPSCO FEMALE INSTITUTE

November 14, 1993|By KATHERINE DREW DEBOALT

More than 150 years ago, on a hill overlooking the mill town that would become Ellicott City, young women of privilege walked the formal parlors and terraced gardens of the Patapsco Female Institute.

There, the girls, many of whom had left Southern plantations for the middle and high school, were sequestered from the temptations of the town below. And there, the story goes, only old men were permitted on the grounds. Young men -- even cousins and brothers -- whom the headmistress considered potential distractions to her students, were forbidden to visit the institute.

Today, the four Doric columns that grace what remains of the school veranda stand obstinately in their places, their bases decorated by the work of modern-day teen-agers declaring their love for one another in swirls of spray paint.

A young tree sprouts between the 11th and 12th step of an enormous front staircase. The granite face of the institute rises behind it, and where it should meet a roof instead reaches toward a brilliant autumn sky.

Inside the ruins, pieces of the inner walls remain, but all of the floors are missing. Fireplaces dot the walls, suspended from what was once the third or fourth floor. Doorways, their carved wood paneling still intact, lead to nowhere.

Time has been hard on the Patapsco Female Institute.

Today, although the grounds are fenced off, the ruins of the 57-room school are still visible off Church Road, about half a mile above the main street of Ellicott City. These days, the 7-acre site teems not with students but with stonemasons and with archaeologists, who have uncovered more than 100,000 artifacts, including pottery shards, combs and slate pencils. They are in the first stages of a project transforming the property into a public park showcasing the ruins and Victorian-era gardens. The plan calls for constructing a series of platforms and catwalks that will permit visitors to safely explore the structure.

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The institute, built in 1835, was an anomaly. It was one of only a few schools that taught women science and foreign languages as well as sewing and social graces, says Sally Bright, a member ""TC of Friends of the Patapsco Institute, a preservation and research group.

The school rose to prominence under the leadership of Almira Phelps, a progressive headmistress and accomplished botanist.

"She thought the girls should always be prepared to earn a living [primarily as teachers] in case something happened to their husbands of the future, and she combined this with grooming them into elegant young ladies," says Ellicott City resident Charles Clark, who is writing a history of the institute.

Letters from some of the girls to their parents complained of a 5 a.m. wake-up hour, strict seclusion from the town -- then called Ellicott Mills -- and particularly of the chilling cold, says Ms.

Bright.

"It's not that far removed from a castle, really. When you've got 20-inch stone walls, it's got to be cold," says Dave Barker, one of the stonemasons who is working on stabilizing the structure.

The Civil War and the advent of public education in Maryland diminished enrollment. By 1891, the institute was officially closed and the building became a summer hotel. Baltimoreans would take the train out from the city and enjoy the cool breezes on the hill.

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From 1926 until 1930, Charles Clark called this enormous building home.

Mr. Clark, who is 80, was one of 11 children. His family rented the building while work was being done on the family's house in town. He and his brothers cleared the gardens and slept in the west-wing dorm rooms, he says.

"We used to joke that if we got tired of one room we'd just disassemble the bed and move it to the next one," says Mr. Clark.

He remembers formal parlors adorned with enormous mirrors, and a cavernous ballroom that had been built in the old chapel.

"We were always dying to get a little basketball going in there, but my father would have no part of it," Mr. Clark says.

After the Clark family left, the institute had a short run as the Hilltop Theater. It became a convalescent home for veterans in the 1950s, Ms. Bright says. Finally, in 1962, Howard County bought the property. Until recently it languished as proposals for its restoration came and went.

Planners say the park may be open to the public in as soon as a year.

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