1746 gem or useless ruin Battle: The Derr House, which might be the oldest in Frederick County, has become a political hot potato. Its new neighbors want to tear it down, while preservationists insist a developer should pay to fix it up.

July 06, 1997|By Mary T. McCarthy | Mary T. McCarthy,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

It's the classic battle of historic preservation vs. modern real estate development.

There it sits: the worn 18th-century farmhouse, sagging from decades of neglect, its beautiful hand-hewn logs covered by ugly siding on the outside and crumbling from termite damage on the inside.

A barbed-wire fence surrounds it in hopes of preventing additional destruction. In stark contrast are beautiful new townhouses in Frederick County's Dearbought community near Walkersville, which are lined neatly in a square surrounding the dilapidated structure.

Numerous meetings have been held between state and local organizations in hopes of reaching a resolution as to the fate of the Derr House, one of Frederick County's oldest structures.

Now, several years after the ground-breaking for an idyllic rural community of more than 600 homes, Dearbought homeowners are complaining about the ruined home that sits as an eyesore in the middle of their community.

Meanwhile, the local preservation organization is clamoring for complete restoration of the house, and the city -- into which the property has been annexed -- has thrown up its hands in frustration.

"The Derr House has become an obsession for me," said Chuck Gunn, president of the Frederick County Landmarks Foundation.

"The developer committed to restore this house, and now that he's found out it costs too much, he wants to tear it down. He should fulfill his commitment."

Gunn said Frederick city officials should be responsible for enforcing the restoration of the house, which was slated in the original property plan to become the heart of the new community.

The original developer, citing financial difficulty, sold the land to Natelli Communities, a Gaithersburg real estate firm that vowed to maintain the original plan, which called for restoration of the historic home.

Upon additional inspection, though, Tom Natelli, president of Natelli Communities, wrote in a 1995 letter to Frederick Mayor Jim Grimes that the house was "in a very advanced state of deterioration and economically impractical to rebuild."

Natelli has sought advice from local and state officials and a consulting firm.

He also has obtained bids from private companies on the cost of restoring the property.

The bids for the cost of saving the house ranged from $150,000 for stabilization to more than $650,000 for complete renovation.

The city -- faced with a developer wanting to demolish the house and a preservation-oriented community wanting to restore it -- has held workshops, task forces and countless meetings in the past few years in an effort to resolve the issue.

Frederick Alderman-pro-tem Frances G. Baker said: "Mr. Natelli inherited an obligation. As a citizen and a city official, I expect him to live up to it. It may be difficult and expensive, but he will restore that house to some degree.

"I admire Chuck Gunn and the Landmarks Foundation for swimming upstream on this. The city should have presented a clear and consistent plan a long time ago."

The city is now waiting on a recommendation from the state historic preservation office, the Maryland Historical Trust, as well as Chris Goodwin and Associates, a Frederick-based architectural and archaeological consulting firm hired by Natelli.

Their recommendation apparently will settle the issue once and for all.

"I want to see preservation win. We have to work hard to preserve the historic fabric which defines our character as a county," Goodwin said.

"In this case, everyone's trying to do the right thing. The question is what's feasible and practical.

" I'm not convinced that this house is even savable. It may be too late for this one."

Architectural historian Orlando Ridout, who heads the department of research at the Maryland Historical Trust, wrote in a letter to the city in 1995: "The current debate should focus on how to save the Derr House, rather than whether the house merits preservation."

Ridout cited the two factors used in evaluating a historic structure: significance and integrity.

After revisiting the site in May, Ridout said: "I have serious concerns about the degree of damage to the building. I wrestle with recommending a degree of intervention which is reasonable and responsible. It's a balancing act, deciding when the intervention will negatively affect the historic integrity."

He called the termite damage "frightening," saying: "It is a textbook case of the worst possible termite infestation over a number of years."

He added, "In preservation, documentation of a historic site can often provide a better educational resource than reconstruction."

Natelli has offered several resolutions since he acquired the land in 1993. These include:

* Paying the city $100,000 to restore other historic homes.

* Paying $150,000 to a local homeless advocacy group.

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