Owings House demolished to make way for office tower Final bid to stop project in court proved too late

March 01, 1996|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

The Samuel Owings House, one of Baltimore County's oldest homes, was bulldozed yesterday -- hours before a judge was scheduled to consider a last-ditch attempt to halt the project.

Columns of ruddy brown dust drifted into the sky as a front-end loader pushed down the walls of the house, built in 1767 by the mill owner for whom Owings Mills is named. When the last wall fell at two minutes after noon, the house had been reduced to a pile of splintered wood, twisted metal and bricks -- some intact, some crushed.

Afterward, the front-end loader scooped mounds of debris into refuse containers, which then were taken to an Eastern Baltimore County rubble fill. Julius W. Lichter, a lawyer for developer Howard S. Brown, said the bricks in those loads were from modern additions to the home and that plans were on track to rebuild the house. "The brick is going to be saved and protected and used for the reconstruction of the house," Mr. Lichter said.

Preservationists -- who said they'd never been given detailed plans on how the building would be razed -- said the method heightened their concerns that the house would not be rebuilt as promised.

"I don't see how you can save bricks with a bulldozer," said Vicki L. Almond, a member of the Committee to Save the Samuel Owings House. "Is it really going to be rebuilt? I have my doubts, the way it was taken down."

Jennifer Esler, executive director of Cliveden, a historic mansion in Philadelphia, said she had never heard of a bulldozer being used to take down a historic building for later reconstruction.

"If they said 'dismantle,' that's not how to dismantle a historic house," she said. "Basically, what you need to do is you take it apart brick by brick, numbering the bricks."

The razing ended a months-long dispute over the fate of the house. Last summer, the county's Landmark Preservation Commission placed the house on a preliminary list of protected landmarks. But Councilman T. Bryan McIntire brokered an agreement under which Mr. Brown would raze the building to make way for a $20 million office tower and rebuild it elsewhere.

County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III did not forward the landmark commission's recommendation to the County Council for approval, and instead shook hands with Mr. Brown on the deal.

The county executive has said his decision was not influenced by the fact that Mr. Brown has sold tickets to his planned fund-raiser.

Mr. McIntire, who has received campaign donations from Mr. Brown's company, David S. Brown Enterprises, also said no conflict of interest exists.

The county issued a permit to raze and reconstruct the building Feb. 23.

Lawyer G. Macy Nelson was prepared to represent preservationists at a 3:15 p.m. hearing yesterday to stop the razing. He planned to argue that the county code was not observed when the council was not given the landmark commission's recommendation. He said he called one of Mr. Brown's lawyers at 8:30 a.m. yesterday and told him about the hearing.

"Unbelievable," Mr. Nelson said after the house had been razed. "You can draw your own conclusions as to what happened between 8:30 and 12."

Mr. Lichter said the pending hearing had nothing to do with the timing of the demolition and that the house had been scheduled to be demolished yesterday. "I don't think there was any cause and effect," he said.

When a reporter tried to ask Mr. Brown about the matter, the developer said, "We're not having any conversations, period."

Richard Luxemburg, head of the architecture department at Anne Arundel Community College, took pictures of the demolition scene. "This is not the way you dismantle a building," he said. Asked whether he thought the building could be rebuilt, he laughed and said, "This is a heap."

When Bonnie Farber, whose husband, Jonathan, has talked about buying the Owings House if it was rebuilt in Caves Valley, learned that the house had been bulldozed, she said, "That's a shame."

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