Developers want to build a nine-story office building in Owings Mills on the site of one of Baltimore County's oldest homes, but the plan faces opposition from county preservationists and the operators of a restaurant occupying the Colonial-era structure.
The Baltimore County Landmarks Preservation Commission has scheduled a hearing next month on placing the Samuel Owings House on the county's landmarks list.
Landmark designation for the house, built in 1767 by the mill owner for whom Owings Mills is named, could put the developers' plan in limbo.
The house is occupied by Fiori Restaurant and, in the basement, by the Wine Cellar Pub. Richard Pirone, part-owner of a restaurant and pub at the site for 18 years, said construction of an office tower on the site would mean the end of his business, which takes in more than $1 million a year.
The house is located on a small hill near Painters Mill and Dolfield roads -- a plantation two centuries ago, but now in Painters Mill Executive Park. The owner, a group called Painters Mill Associates (No. 1), rents the space to Mr. Pirone but hopes to construct the office building there.
Julius W. Lichter, an attorney for the owners, said his clients want to uproot the Owings house and move it at their expense to a location he would not divulge.
Once the house is moved, he said, developers plan a $20 million, nine-story office building with four levels of parking on the site. Neighbors include medical and other offices, a fitness center and a bank.
Three companies have expressed interest in renting space in the building, and the owners might consider retail outlets on its first floor, Mr. Lichter said.
He noted that his clients are willing to move the Owings house, although they say it would be much easier to raze it. "We want to do the responsible thing and have the building preserved," he said.
"The significance of the building, if it has a significance, would be better served in a setting that is not already surrounded by commercial and industrial office structures," he said.
If the Owings house is moved, the restaurant could not remain in it because the property owners intend to leave the basement and the kitchen behind, Mr. Pirone said, estimating the cost of reconstruction at about $600,000.
"I would be out of business," Mr. Pirone said. "I would not be in a position to replace what would be lost."
The two-story, country Georgian brick house was built by Samuel Owings II, a revolutionary patriot of English extraction who later ran three prosperous merchant mills. He lived there with his wife, Deborah, and 12 children.
The house also has been known as Painter's Mansion and ULM -- said to stand for the upper, lower and middle mills he ran, which were near the house.
No one owned property for about a mile in each direction of his plantation, so Samuel Owings gave his name to the community as the prominent citizen in the area, said John McGrain, executive secretary of the landmarks commission.
The Owings house is one of the county's oldest. "Georgian brick houses are very, very few in Baltimore County," Mr. McGrain said, adding that there are about 20 houses of any sort in Baltimore County built before 1800.
It is conceivable that the building can be moved without being destroyed, Mr. McGrain said. Whether that happens depends upon a few factors -- including whether a majority of the commission's 15 unpaid members vote June 8 to put the building on a preliminary historic landmarks list.
Such a vote would prohibit any demolition until the Baltimore County Council votes on adding the house to its final landmarks list, which would stave off development indefinitely.
County Councilman T. Bryan McIntire, a Republican who represents Owings Mills, said he has heard of several possible locations for moving the house, all of which are within a few miles. He said he is now considering whether to support a move.
"If a more suitable site could be found, and we could be assured it could be rebuilt totally intact, numbering each of the bricks, I would go for it," Mr. McIntire said, adding that he would vote to leave the house where it is "if it can't be moved safely."
An area community group wants the Owings house to stay put.
"I think we have enough office buildings," said Vicki Almond, president of the Reisterstown Owings Mills Glyndon Coordinating Council, which has written letters to the County Council to protest moving the Owings house since learning of the possibility in March.
"I feel in this area of growth, we just need to preserve as much of the history as possible. I'm not opposed to development, but there are certainly plenty of other places to put [a] building and a parking lot," she said.
Mr. Pirone's restaurant incorporates the historic detailing of the house in its decor. Exposed walls of soft brick, fireplaces and oil paintings representing the Colonial period are features of the restaurant. The walls have detailed molding, and the walls and floors of the six dining rooms are original Carolina wood.
Mr. Pirone lamented the loss of such historic touches if his restaurant were to be relocated in another building, and the loss of the basement -- an unusual stone wine cellar that houses his Wine Cellar Pub.
Fiori, open seven days a week with a staff of 70, has been in operation since 1990. Before that, Mr. Pirone and a partner ran a French restaurant called Country Fare at the same location.
"People have come to expect us to be here," he said. "I got a lifetime of work in here."