Charm to reign again at old finishing school

May 03, 1994|By Sherry Joe | Sherry Joe,Sun Staff Writer

On a hill overlooking historic Ellicott City, a renaissance is taking place.

Stone by stone, a Baltimore construction company works to restore the crumbling facade of the Patapsco Female Institute, once a finishing school for young women that was abandoned in the 1950s.

When the project is complete, visitors can explore the ruin amid a garden park of historic plants.

"It's going to be an exciting asset to all of Ellicott City's historical sites," said Clara L. Gouin, a senior park planner for the county's Recreation and Parks department.

"It has a commanding view of the Ellicott City valley. I think it's going to be a place people will want to come to."

All that remains of the granite, three-story structure are worn, rugged walls and columns. A fire destroyed the roof several years ago, but the remnants of the pale gray ruin remain hauntingly magnificent.

At its entrance, weathered stairs lead to four columns and into emptiness. A ghostly outline of steps remains along one wall.

For the past decade, a volunteer group called Friends of the Patapsco Female Institute has worked to restore the former girls' school. During that time, the National Park Service and the Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks have helped to plan the project.

In 1989, Warwick Construction Co. was hired to temporarily stabilize the ruin's walls for the second phase of the four-phase project. The Baltimore company has returned as general contractor to complete the third phase. The first phase consisted of clearing the site.

For the third phase, construction crews will dismantle and re-erect a stone chapel on the site, permanently stabilize weakened walls, repair four 18-foot Doric columns, install wooden decks and walkways throughout the building and build a carriage lane around the perimeter of the nine-acre site. The work is expected to last five months.

The final phase calls for a garden of plants popular between 1835 and 1914, including the Baltimore Belle Rose, which was discovered at the Paca Gardens in Annapolis. If all goes as planned, the park could open on a limited basis next year.

From 1837 to 1890, the institute was an educational center for young women who came from the middle Atlantic states, the South and the Midwest to take advantage of its progressive curriculum. The institute was the first finishing school in the nation to offer women math and science courses.

The building was later used as a summer hotel known as Berg Alynwyck, a World War I veterans' convalescent hospital, a summer theater and a nursing home. It was abandoned in the 1950s and bought by the county in 1966.

Sally Bright, president of the Friends group, is glad the project is nearing an end.

"It's been a long time, but the time has gone by fast," Ms. Bright said. "Just being patient and keeping your eye on the project" has been the most difficult part of the entire process.

Last November, Warwick began to permanently stabilize and restore the ruin's walls with steel skeletons. But severe winter weather forced work crews to stop.

Workers returned in March to complete the stabilization and disassemble the chapel, a complex job that requires individually numbering each stone.

"This is definitely a challenging job," said Dean Dixon, superintendent and foreman for the construction company. "It's just like a jigsaw puzzle."

To insure that walls and stones are re-assembled correctly, each is carefully lettered and numbered. There are 17 walls lettered from A to R, and about 1,500 stones for the chapel alone.

Bundles of assorted stone and debris scatter the nine-acre site. Workers search the piles for facing stones, polished rocks with even edges that are used for the structure's facade.

If a rock has a rough surface and rounded edges, it is thrown into a rubble pile. Many of the facing stones will be used to replace gaping holes in the ruin's walls where stones have fallen out.

Safety is a major concern at the institute.

Because many of the walls have deteriorated since the institute was built in 1837, workers are wary of falling rocks.

"You can take one little rock out and 20 will fall out," Mr. Dixon said. To minimize hazards, workers stabilize portions of the walls before beginning restoration.

"Sometimes we'll have to start up on the top before working on the bottom of the structure," Mr. Dixon said.

As restoration of the institute continues, workers occasionally find relics from the building's past, including window balustrades, pottery pieces and clay pipes.

The ruin's presence has always fascinated Ms. Gouin of the county Recreation and Parks Department.

"I'm always amazed that the structure has withstood the test of ** time," she said.

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