Elkridge Furnace Inn survived a close call with a bulldozer Citizen protest helped preserve the 1744 building

March 18, 1996|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,SUN STAFF

Bob Sansbury looked over the newspaper photos of a bulldozer reducing the historic Samuel Owings house to rubble. "It could have been us," he shuddered.

"Us" is Elkridge Furnace Inn, a thriving restaurant and catering establishment where Mr. Sansbury is the banquet manager. It occupies a red-brick building dating to 1744 a historic structure whose fate, like that of the Owings house, once hung by a thread.

A decade ago, the State Highway Administration had a bulldozer parked outside as officials debated whether to raze the building once a riverside tavern, enlarged into a federal-style mansion in 1810 for construction of Interstate 195.

Citizen protest prevailed. The right of way was shifted and the building went into the Department of Natural Resources' curatorship program believed the only one of its kind in the nation in which people use state-owned historic properties rent-free in exchange for restoring them at no cost to the government.

The same concept on the local level could be used to save Aigburth Vale, a Baltimore County landmark mansion built in 1868 on what is now the campus of Towson High School, preservationists say.

"There is no reason why a curatorship shouldn't work," said Ross M. Kimmel, who has headed the state program for DNR's Forest and Parks Service since its inception in 1982 as a citizen proposal.

Thirty state-owned historically or architecturally significant structures have been or are being restored around Maryland under the curatorship program a third of them in Baltimore County, Mr. Kimmel said.

Under the curatorship program, brothers Steve and Dan Wecker received a 40-year lease in 1989 to restore the Elkridge house and operate it as a catering establishment. In 1994, they opened their restaurant overlooking the Patapsco River, where sailing ships carrying cargo to Elk Ridge once turned for their return voyages.

"It's a win-win situation," said Steve Wecker. The state retains ownership of the restored property and receives a percentage of the revenue from the commercial venture, he said.

"History cannot be preserved in every instance just for its own sake," Mr. Sansbury said. "Someone has to pay for this."

He and other preservationists emphasize that with little public money available, post-restoration practical use is a key factor in deciding whether a place can and should be saved.

The destruction of the privately owned 1767 Owings house to make way for an office building in Owings Mills is driving area preservationists to look for ways to save Aigburth, a 22-room mansion built by John Owens, a 19th-century comedic actor.

Owned by the school board since 1950 and used for offices, Aigburth is a designated landmark. The school system has agreed to return the house to county government amid renewed outcries at its deterioration for lack of maintenance.

A local curatorship could be the answer to restore the house and put it to practical use, said Ruth Mascari, head of the county's Landmarks Preservation Commission and a vigorous critic of the deal that permitted demolition of the Owings House.

County Councilman Douglas B. Riley, a Towson Republican, said he talked with the Junior League several years ago about restoring Aigburth and leasing rooms to other nonprofit groups. A successful example of that approach is the nearby 1853 Dumbarton House, which has been restored and leased to a theater group.

However, county officials who did nothing to block the Owings House demolition seem determined to rid themselves of Aigburth.

Merreen Kelly, the county administrative officer, was not interested in a curatorship arrangement. "That can be left to the buyer; they know about things like that. We're going to get two appraisals and put it on the market. I want to get rid of it," he said.

Robert Albiol, 42, who is completing his third restoration a late 18th-century farmhouse at the state game preserve at Gwynnbrook, near Owings Mills argues that selling off property, as Mr. Kelly proposes, is a short-sighted approach to preservation.

The state's curatorship program should be a model for other governments, he said. "DNR is the only agency with the vision to see that the heritage can be preserved at no cost to the state. In Maryland there are hundreds of historic houses," said Dr. Albiol, who lives in one of the two houses he restored in Montgomery County.

The Maryland program was begun after state officials refused an offer by Lawrence and Agnes Bartlett to buy the crumbling Gittings-Baldwin house, built between 1770 and 1790 in what is now Gunpowder Falls State Park.

The Homeland couple proposed an alternative: Lifetime tenancy in return for restoring the stone farmhouse. A deal was approved by the Board of Public Works, and the program was born. Today their house is a registered National Historic Landmark.

Pub Date: 3/18/96

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