Builder tries to preserve historic Monmouth Farm Harford site might be hub of development

April 07, 1996|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,SUN STAFF

Col. Ramsay McHenry wouldn't recognize his once grand summer cottage.

The 1770 Harford County estate called Monmouth Farm has become a dumping ground for trash, including old appliances, rusted cars -- and even a wrecked boat. A sign warns: "No Trespassing. Trespassers will be shot. Survivors will be shot again."

And now, development is on the way with a proposal by Wood Properties of Jarrettsville to build a 222-unit complex of townhouses, condominiums and apartments on the 31-acre parcel on West Wheel Road, a few miles east of Bel Air.

The usual knock-them-down mentality has a twist, though. The historic house -- which once was owned by the family for which Baltimore's famous Fort McHenry is named -- has been targeted for renovation.

In the first step of the development process, a preliminary plan for the project has been submitted to the county Department of Planning and Zoning that calls for saving the main house as a community center.

But several steps in the approval process remain, including a public hearing, before the neighborhood to be named Arthur's Woods can become a reality. Construction is expected to take a year. And not everyone is convinced the stone cottage HTC refurbished in 1845 will survive.

"It's going to be a real tragedy if it's knocked down," said Mark Franz, an Edgewood artist who used to live in the caretaker's house on the property. "We're not just talking Harford County history. We're talking national history."

These days, it takes a lot of vision to imagine the estate as an English country house with marble fireplaces in the bedrooms, a library, smoking room and a well-tended garden on the edge of the once-600-acre wooded property that had the largest tulip poplars in the county.

It is unclear when bachelor Ramsay McHenry, who was born in 1814 and died in 1878, purchased the Harfordland. But local author Christopher Weeks writes in a book on county architectural history that Colonel McHenry spent most of the year in Baltimore and used the farm as a summer retreat until his death.

Mr. Weeks calls Monmouth Farm "perhaps Harford's greatest example of a late Victorian estate. The extensive grounds contain a locally unsurpassed collection of outbuildings, including a brewery and an octagonal smokehouse."

Today, those buildings -- a caretaker's house, slave quarters and massive barns -- are collapsing. An in-ground pool also is crumbling. Litter is everywhere.

A resident caretaker tries to keep vandals away but seems to be losing the battle. His task is made more difficult by the secluded location of the estate, which is on a hill along a winding, dirt driveway almost a mile from the main road.

Despite its dismal condition, developer Art Wood, president of Wood Properties, said he has every intention of preserving the old home as a focus of the new development. "We will restore it as close as we can to what it was in its heyday and use it as a community center or first as a sales center."

Part of the impetus to save the house, Mr. Wood said, stems from his background. "I know what it's like to live on a farm," said the Harford native, who grew up on a dairy farm near Bel Air.

His engineer, Leonard A. Parrish of George William Stephens Jr. and Associates, which has offices in Towson and Bel Air, acknowledges that the decision to save the house was a close call because of its condition. Over the years, the two-story main house has been divided into rental apartments. Today, unkempt vines crawl over the vacant gambrel-roofed structure with broken windows.

"It will cost a lot of money," said Mr. Parish of the renovation, for which a cost estimate was not available. "But we're very pro-preservation of historic properties."

Pub Date: 4/07/96

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