Maryvale house: landmark or liability? Group wants it saved, but nuns want to sell

June 17, 1996|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

It's a rural relic on a valley way, a vacant white farmhouse with flaking clapboard and rotting floors. Cars whiz past it on Greenspring Valley Road, most drivers unaware that this ramshackle structure is at the center of a debate between historic preservationists and a graying order of nuns.

Preservationists say the peeling paint and sagging floors mask a historic nugget that celebrates the housing and lifestyle of 19th-century Baltimore County's rural working class -- and helps justify the valley's standing as a nationally registered historic district.

But lawyers for its owners, the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, say the old house is more a safety hazard than historic landmark -- and might need to be razed. "It's a mess," said G. Scott Barhight, a lawyer for the order.

The house, parts of which date to at least 1850, goes by various names. To some, it is the Carlisle Tenant House, named for a family of builders that once owned the land.

To others it is the Maryvale Sisters' House, a name that marks its links with the Maryvale Preparatory School for Girls. The principal and some caretakers lived in the house until about 25 years ago, said Sister Shawn Marie Maguire, headmistress of the school.

The large, two-story house, which includes additions from the late 19th century, sits about 30 feet off Greenspring Valley Road, shielded from it by a tangle of bushes and a line of trees.

Both the school and the house are on land owned by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, a teaching order established in 1804 in France. The order includes about 2,500 sisters worldwide and about 200 in the Baltimore-Washington area.

In recent years, the sisters have sought to sell off surplus properties to help support the order's aging nuns. That's what sparked a plan to sell part of the Maryvale property for a housing development, lawyers for the sisters said.

As part of the development process, plans were floated to demolish the tenant house in 1992. But because the house had been listed with the Maryland Inventory of Historic Properties, the developers would have needed a waiver from a county hearing officer to raze the house.

That year, the county's Landmarks Preservation Commission voted against listing the house as a landmark. The housing development, known as Westwicke, eventually was approved -- but without the waiver that would allow the house to be razed.

Last year, the Landmarks Preservation Commission reversed its position, recommending that the house be protected.

"It's a lovely house and with proper TLC it could be brought

back," said Judith S. Kremen, a member of the Baltimore County Historical Trust and the commission.

The County Council would have to give its approval before the house could be added to the list of protected landmarks.

Lawyers for the sisters say that adding the house to the list could create an obligation for the nuns to maintain it -- even

though it can't be used because of a failed septic system. Restoration costs have been estimated at more than $200,000, the lawyers said.

"The real story is the sisters are gathering their resources to take care of the aging members of the order, and they're being beleaguered by the Landmarks Preservation Commission's well-meaning but misguided effort in regard to this particular house," said Christine McSherry, another lawyer for the order.

She said negotiations with neighbors produced an agreement to retain the area around the tenant house as undeveloped space.

Meanwhile, the order has offered to give the building to anyone willing to move it from the property. If there are no takers, the lawyers say the house may have to be razed because it is a safety hazard for trespassers.

Pub Date: 6/17/96

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