Old summer retreat is still a sanctuary


February 20, 1994|By Adriane B. Miller | Adriane B. Miller,Contributing Writer

Lawyers Hill started as a summer retreat for well-to-do Baltimoreans. Now the tiny community near Elkridge is struggling to keep some of its character intact before interstates, subdivisions and natural ravages like time and apathy erase it from memory.

A group of Lawyers Hill residents have petitioned the Howard County Council to designate their neighborhood of 64 homes a historic area. They hope the designation will help protect it from developers and landowners who may want to subdivide their property on the wide hill.

Such a designation would probably please the original residents -- a group of lawyers who chose the woods above the Patapsco River for their family cottages and estates in the early 1800s. Many of the Victorian-era homes, their eaves dripping with carved gingerbread woodwork, still exist.

Lawyers Hill is already a national historic site. The Maryland Historical Trust gave the land along Lawyers Hill Road, Old Lawyers Hill Road and Elibank Drive in Elkridge that honor in September 1993.

The public hearing to debate the Howard County historic designation coincided with an ugly ice storm in January, and few petitioners came to show their support. The County Council will probably decide what to do with the petition on Wednesday.

Whatever happens, development will likely go on, said Clive Graham of the Howard County Department of Planning.

"New homes would be able to continue," Mr. Graham said. "[Historic status] does not affect zoning. You can still subdivide. It would just mean the way the lots were laid out would come

under review by the historic district commission. They would be looking at some sensitivity on the part of the developer and builder."

In fact, developers were clearing ground for a new subdivision of homes in Lawyers Hill even as the state was preparing to give the area historic status in September.

The subdivision, the Gables at Lawyers Hill, is a collection of about 60 single-family homes being built by NV Homes and Patriot Homes. The two-story, four-bedroom, two-car-garage Colonials occupy wooded lots that are at least one-third of an acre. Home prices start at $205,000. About 40 homes have been sold so far.

Lauren Bowlin, a preservation officer with the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development, said that more home development could follow The Gables on Lawyers Hill.

"Federal or state historic preservation laws do not prohibit new development," Ms. Bowlin said.

"When there is impact, they require consultation with the state" to decide how the development would affect the area, she said.

"The Historical Trust suggests ways to minimize negative effects of development, but we can't stop it," she said.

That worries a number of Lawyers Hill residents, who say the community is too fragile for a large influx of people.

A resident who did not want to be named said she would not discuss the neighborhood for fear publicity would bring a rush of curiosity seekers to the narrow streets surrounding her home.

The pioneers

The first residents here were curiosity seekers themselves, riding out from the city to find fun in the country.

In about 1840, George W. Dobbin, Thomas Donaldson, John H. B. Latrobe and Thomas W. Levering, lawyers all, were among the first to buy several acres each on the wooded hill of Elkridge above the Patapsco and build summer escapes.

Others came here too, building fanciful cottages and Victorian homes with names like Fairy Knowe, The Lawn, Wayside and Mayfield.

Gradually, new houses and additions appeared on the family properties. Whole estates passed to subsequent generations of Dobbinses, Donaldsons, Latrobes and Leverings.

Helen Voris, an Elkridge resident for 74 years and past president of the Elkridge Heritage Society, has lived on "the Hill" since 1958. She said the exclusivity of Lawyers Hill began to decline during the Depression.

"Many people found it too expensive to keep up two homes," Mrs. Voris said. "The summer houses were just not opened. They sat a while."

In the 1960s, the wide swath of Interstate 95 cut through the original Latrobe family home site, known as The Lawn.

"A lot of people were very upset about that," Mrs. Voris said.

"The 95 access road cut into their driveways. There was an effort to stop it but we needed somebody with stature."

The likes of Latrobe and Dobbins were long gone and the community wasn't able to rustle up enough influence to convince the highway engineers to change their minds. Now, I-95 and I-895 merge just north of Lawyers Hill.

Unadvertised sales

Mrs. Voris said the neighborhood tries to keep a low profile. Few places come up for sale here, and when they do, the

transactions are mostly quiet and unadvertised.

Many of the old homes clearly have been forgotten by owners. Their wood siding and scalloped shingles are cracked and devoid of paint; pieces of elaborate gingerbread trim are scattered on the ground. Roofs sag. Bramble bushes have overtaken porches and overhangs.

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