Predicaments for preservationists: balancing artifacts with hard facts When funding dries up, saving graces fall short

March 05, 1996|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,SUN STAFF

The recent controversy over the fate of two old Baltimore County buildings points up just how iffy historic preservation is.

Some structures attract enough public interest, sympathy -- and the all-important dollars -- to be rescued, said John W. McGrain, historian in the county's Office of Planning and Zoning.

Others simply disappear, losers in an intensifying competition for dwindling public preservation funds and victims of suburban sprawl.

Every case is different and A key factor in every decision, beyond historical or architectural significance, is whether a restored building would serve a practical use, Mr. McGrain said.

"There isn't a whole lot of public funding around except through the Maryland Historic Trust and some of the successes have been from the bankrolls of the trust and the General Assembly," said Mr. McGrain, executive secretary of the county Landmark Preservation Commission.

The latest cases to attract public interest locally are the 1767 Samuel Owings house in Owings Mills, which was razed last week to make way for offices, and the 1868 Aigburth Vale mansion on the grounds of Towson High School, for which a wealthy buyer is being sought who will commit to its restoration.

People are growing more conscious of the need to preserve historic heritage, "but economic forces are pushing the other way," said Peter Brink, a vice president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

"The merits of the structure, its value in a historical and architectural sense, should drive the decision," he said. "It's very dependent on the local community, what do they want their community to be like."

In some areas, corporations are undertaking rehabilitation projects to restore old buildings and convert them to apartments to take advantage of tax incentives, he said.

Baltimore County has listed 2,800 historically or architecturally important sites, including houses, stores, chapels, schools, train stations, bridges and milestones. Most of them are well-preserved, Mr. McGrain said.

The controversy over the Owings house and Aigburth is the exception rather than the rule. "They are glaring examples of the few that aren't being preserved that outshine the many that are being lovingly cared for," he said. The county has as many significant buildings as any local area, most of them 19th-century structures, Mr. McGrain said, "but we have also lost a lot; we've lost a lot of Towson and there have been a lot of ugly adaptations" of old buildings to new uses.

The county's showplace of course, is the 1790 Hampton Mansion in Towson, which is owned by the National Park Service. Mr. McGrain notes There are many local "success stories" as well, both privately and publicly owned structures and some restored through combined private and public resources. Mr. McGrain said.

Among the listed successes:

Ballestone Mansion, at Rocky Point Park in Essex, is among the best examples, he said. With county help, the community began restoring the house, begun in 1780 and enlarged several times in the 19th century, as a bicentennial project in 1976. Volunteers maintain it as a museum furnished in mid-19th-century style.

The Meadows, on Painters Mill Road in Red Run Valley, another 18th-century Owings home. It has been restored by a developer who uses it for offices.

Dumbarton House, built in 1853, in what is now Rodgers Forge and nearby Aigburth. It was also school property but has been extensively restored to be used for community activities, including theater.

St. John's Church in Ruxton, a tiny chapel that served the area's black community, was restored as a joint public-private effort and is used for special occasions by the residents of Bare Hills.

Ashland Village, once an thriving iron foundry near Cockeysville, now is a deluxe development. A developer rehabilitated the best the old buildings as homes and interspersed them with new residences built in complementary style. "Each site is special," said Ruth Mascari, chairman of the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Baltimore County has 18 National Historic Districts and seven locally designated historic districts where laws control exterior alterations and prohibit "demolition by neglect," said Ruth Mascari, chairman of the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Generally speaking, she said, county residents are pro-active and very knowledgeable about the local heritage and efforts to preserve it.

Federal and state legislation to offer tax incentives to homeowners who preserve and restore old buildings is in progress and deserves support from the preservation-minded, Ms. Mascari said.

She said preservation activity has intensified in the past five years in Baltimore County with the growing number of designated historic districts.

"This shows that Joe Citizen is putting his money where his mouth is. We're gaining historic districts while having the highest requirement in the country, 75 percent of the properties in a district," Ms. Mascari said.

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