Quaint old mill town on banks of Patapsco


January 22, 1995|By Sherry Joe | Sherry Joe,Sun Staff Writer

Joetta Cramm could shop at The Mall in Columbia, a collection of restaurants, boutiques and gift shops in the heart of Howard County.

But she prefers to visit historic Ellicott City, where holiday shoppers pause in front of store windows and motorists hunt for the most convenient spots along Main Street.

"I think it's a welcome change from a modern shopping center," says the Howard County historian who enjoys the neighborhood's "small-town feeling."

Nestled in the Patapsco River Valley, historic Ellicott City encompasses a square-mile of wooded hills overlooking the Patapsco River and Oella, a former Baltimore County mill village.

It was there the Ellicott brothers settled in the 1770s, creating the region's first flour mill, which led to a town called Ellicott's Mills on the western banks of the Patapsco River.

Homes and shops in the historic district date from the 1790s, with architectural styles ranging from Victorian and Federal to Italianate. Many Main Street shops were constructed from granite mined at quarries along the Patapsco River.

"There's a lot to see in historic Ellicott City if you're interested in architecture," says Howard County planner Stephen Bockmiller.

To protect the town's architectural heritage, development is restricted by national and local historic district guidelines.

Residents and commercial property owners are eligible for state and federal income tax credits and federally funded projects must be approved by the Maryland Historic Trust.

All exterior building changes must be approved by the Historic District Commission, a seven-member board of Howard County residents, which governs development and architectural standards in historic districts in Ellicott City and Elkridge.

Industrial past

The preserved town buildings provide a pictorial history of Ellicott City's industrial past.

The historic district is "rich in the early Industrial Revolution," says Gary Maule, president of the Ellicott City Restoration Foundation, a civicgroup overseeing the town's development. "Ellicott City was at the crossroads . . . in the juncture of history."

During the late 18th and 19th centuries, mills manufactured cotton, flour, iron products and paper.

The Wilkins Rogers Co. flour mill and the house of George Ellicott, a son of a town founder, are still located across the river from historic Ellicott City.

The town was also the site of the nation's first railroad station. Now a museum at Main Street and Maryland Avenue, the B&O Railroad Station showcases the history of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and its role in the Civil War.

Like industry and transportation, natural disasters such as floods and fires altered the face of the historic district.

New life

"Those things breathed new life into the town and brought people together," Ms. Cramm says. "The town there today is not the town that was there 50 years ago."

After World War II, shopping centers began appearing in suburban Montgomery and Baltimore counties. Businesses left sleepy Main Street for heavily traveled Baltimore National Pike.

"Ellicott City was kind of run-down," Ms. Cramm says. "After the war, and during the late Forties and Fifties, the town was degenerating."

But during the late 1960s, merchants returned, lured by the community's cheap leases and quaint facades. Soon, antique shops began appearing along Main Street followed by restaurants and boutiques.

Alda Baptiste, who lives in a two-story apartment above her formal wear shop on Main Street, says she can't imagine living anywhere else.

"You have a certain amount of privacy [and] there's an extreme )) convenience," says Ms. Baptiste, an 18-year resident.

Just up the street is a five-acre development of condominiums and townhouses, Greystone. Older couples and young families with children have made their home at the College Avenue site that was once a private boys' academy.

Residents "find it quite exciting to live right in a historic district," says Harold Nelson, chairman of the Brightwater Group, a San Francisco firm marketing the 50-unit project. All but four units have been sold, Mr. Nelson says.

Prices for the condominiums range from $100,000 to $162,000 while the townhouses -- three-story houses with three bedrooms -- range from $140,000 to $160,000.

Mixed emotions

Residents have mixed emotions about the historic district's development. The area draws many shoppers, but parking has become a problem, especially during the busy holiday season.

Many motorists complain that they can't find parking in the eastern end of town, near the Patapsco River.

To ease the parking crunch, merchants and county officials have offered a number of solutions. In May, an 80-space parking lot was built in Oella, and this holiday season, shoppers were able to use a free parking shuttle that traveled to lots on the outskirts of town. The county may offer the service year-round.

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