Fighting the Odds for Historic Houses

COLUMN

April 17, 1994|By ELISE ARMACOST

The big, white stucco house along Crain Highway used to be one of the most beautiful residences in North County. Now it haunts the road like a decrepit ghost, its windows boarded with plywood, its walls scrawled with graffiti, its once gracious back porch crumbling into the weeds.

Vandals have burned the house. A murdered man's body was dumped in its basement. Whoever owns the place doesn't bother to respond to Anne Arundel County's offers to help save it.

"It's really sad," says Donna Ware, the county's historical sites planner.

The house, which dates to the 1850s, would make a wonderful bed and breakfast or restaurant, but, like many derelict historic properties in Anne Arundel, its future does not look good.

When redevelopment threatens old houses such as this one, called the Mazie Smith Stoll House, the county Office of Planning and Zoning does what it can to preserve them, but its powers are limited.

It can attach preservation easements during the subdivision process, prohibiting developers from razing the building. It can recommend that developers sell the house on a separate parcel to someone interested in restoring it, or that the house be converted to a clubhouse or some other functional use in the development. When the Chatham Development Corp. bought a large piece of property, including the Stoll house, for an office park, plans called for the home to be restored as a restaurant.

Obviously, that never happened. Chatham went bankrupt, the property changed hands and the new owners let it fall apart. There is nothing the county can do to prevent that.

It tries, though. Ms. Ware keeps careful tabs on the county's 20 or so derelict historic properties and mediates plans to rescue those whose owners are willing to help. Although the recession and the county's property tax cap made government support for historic preservation a luxury, the county still manages to offer financial assistance to purchasers interested in renovating old buildings.

The Anne Arundel Community Development Services Inc. (formerly the Office of Community Development), which distributes grant money for housing projects, is in the process of reviving the "Scattered Sites Renewal Program" to provide financial support for redevelopment of historic properties.

County Executive Robert R. Neall has proposed the sale of an historic property in South County which the county bought at bankruptcy auction, then using the profits as seed money for the Scattered Sites program.

Even with few resources, the county has enjoyed a few successes.

In Davidsonville, Ms. Ware says, builder Warren Halle agreed to separate an 18-century brick house called Mulberry Hill from his Eagle's Passages development. The home will be sold, it is hoped, to someone with an interest in restoring it.

Just a few minutes away from the Stoll mansion is the Thomas Pumphrey House on Furnace Branch Road. It's in even worse shape.

Though it is structurally sound, vandalism, arson and neglect have reduced it to little more than a brick shell. Built in 1863, it, like the Stoll house, was once the centerpiece of a large truck farm. Like the Stoll house, it was constructed in what is known as the Vernacular style -- two stories, with a central passageway and staircase.

The Pumphrey house got caught up in suburban sprawl when Burwood Road Associates of Severna Park bought it during the 1980s as part of a tract that has since been turned into the Oakleaf Villas subdivision. The county required that the house be retained, had a feasibility study done and marketed it extensively.

The effort appears to be on the verge of paying off. The Virginia-based Shelter Development Corp. has expressed serious interest in purchasing the Pumphrey house for use as apartments for the elderly.

That would be a major coup for preservationists. The Pumphrey family dates back to the 1600s, and this house is considered to have major historical significance.

There are those who will argue that county government has more important things to worry about than saving historic buildings. It does, and the amount of money it devotes to preservation reflects those priorities.

Some people, too, will say old houses aren't worth this much effort if they're surrounded by a sea of condominiums and townhouses. Ms. Ware hears that fairly often, and she always has a ready answer.

"My argument," she says, "is that at least they are still there."

They may not fit into the landscape any more. But they still should be saved, lest the last traces of what Anne Arundel County once was before asphalt, convenience stores and tract housing disappear with them.

Elise Armacost is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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