Rising from the Ruins

May 06, 1994

If you were to compile a list of structural ruins as tourist attractions, you'd most likely think of sites in foreign countries -- Pompeii in southern Italy, or numerous decrepit castles throughout Europe.

The United States, a relatively young nation, doesn't rate as a destination for devotees of ruins. The same could be said of Ellicott City (its reputation for antiques aside). But a private group, with help from the state and Howard County, aims to turn a local ruin into an attraction by making a seven-acre public garden park out of the crumbled stone building that once housed a young women's finishing school.

From 1837 to 1890, the Patapsco Female Institute operated out of a three-story granite structure overlooking Ellicott City. The school has historic significance for being the nation's first to instruct young women in math and science. Its progressive curriculum drew pupils from as far away as the Southern and Midwestern states. However, it lost its unique status -- and eventually closed -- as public education began to broaden its course offerings in the late 1800s. The building subsequently served as a hotel, a private residence, a hospital, a theater and, in its final use 40 years ago, a home for indigent people. Abandoned thereafter, the structure fell into disrepair, was stripped of its wood fixtures and lost its roof to a fire.

Yet since the late 1960s, the volunteer Friends of the Patapsco Female Institute have had grand visions for the historic building. In recent years, the county and state governments have agreed to cover the cost of the $1.1 million, four-phase project in which the 17 granite walls and four Doric columns will be refurbished and wooden walkways will be built indoors where the ground-level floor used to be. Visitors will be able to stroll through and study the building and look out its windows at Ellicott City far below or at outdoor gardens full of plants popular in the 1800s. The project is reminiscent of the popular William Paca Gardens in Historic Annapolis.

Friends president Sally Bright says the site might eventually be booked for concerts, readings, weddings and student tours, perhaps opening on a limited basis in 1995 and becoming a full-fledged public garden park by decade's end. "I see it appealing to children, fans of nature, fans of history," Ms. Bright predicts, adding, "It'll be a quiet place just for people to be, but full of life at the same time."

Which would be a happily ironic new use for ruins that have been lifeless for many decades.

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