As Wal-Mart prepares to break ground for a store near Dundalk, preservationists are pressuring the company to allow an archaeological survey of the property -- the site of British and American activity during the Battle of North Point in 1814.
The 11th-hour request -- the latest in a series of skirmishes between developers and Baltimore County preservationists -- stems from local historians' realization that a rambling white house earmarked for the retail store's parking lot could contain a historic tavern.
"Local tradition holds that the original structure is encased within the existing structure," said archaeologist Kathy Lee Erlandson Liston. "If indeed it is encased, it would be the oldest existing structure on the peninsula."
Preservationists would like to examine the house, which may have been built around the former Cook's Tavern, and surrounding property between Old North Point Road and North Point Boulevard, a gathering place for troops from both sides during the War of 1812.
"What I would like to do is to be able to have a dig before it is macadamed over," said Ruth B. Mascari, chairwoman of the Baltimore County Landmarks Preservation Commission. "It is really important to the citizens, and I hope the developer could be a part of this."
An attorney representing the Wal-Mart project, which could get under way in the spring, said the company has not yet purchased the house. It could not be learned who owns the house.
"It's not our land," Towson attorney Robert Hoffman said last week. "It's a small portion of the overall site."
But Wal-Mart plans to buy the property, part of five parcels north of North Point Shopping Center that make up the site, he said. Occupants of the house in the 1800 block of Old North Point Road did not want to discuss the project.
The latest historic flap echoes other preservation battles in Baltimore County.
In 1995, a battle erupted between preservationists and a developer over the 1767 Samuel Owings house in Owings Mills, which was demolished for offices.
Another high-profile controversy involved Hayfields Farm in Hunt Valley, where Union and Confederate troops camped -- now being developed into a golf course, country club and housing development.
And the 1868 Aigburth Vale mansion in Towson is deteriorating while a buyer is being sought.
But neither the North Point house nor the surrounding land has been designated a historic site. As a result, Wal-Mart has been able to proceed smoothly through the county permit process and obtain a special zoning exception to sell auto parts at the store.
"No sites were listed as having historical significance on the property," said county planner Brent Flickinger.
The only opposition came during a community input meeting this year when nearby residents raised concerns about traffic and parking, he said.
"There were objections. But nine out of 10 people wanted it," Democratic Dundalk Councilman Louis L. DePazzo said of the store, which is expected to bring 200 jobs to the area.
He views the preservationists' request for an archaeological survey with caution.
"I'm leaning more toward taking care of the current needs [of the area] than history," DePazzo said. "I hope we don't have to jump through hoops."
County historian John McGrain said, "At this late date, it's much too late in the game to discover the site. The most we could hope for is archaeologists would be invited to inspect the site."
During the two-day Battle of North Point, both American and British soldiers marched across the property. According to a letter written at the time by an American Army surgeon at the scene, the British retreated "200 yards in the rear of a red house called Cook's House."
Before being turned back, 4,000 British troops, triumphant after burning the capital in Washington, landed near what is now Fort Howard and marched toward Baltimore.
Lookouts on the Patapsco Neck peninsula alerted Maryland militiamen, who confronted the British soldiers while the city fortified Hampstead Hill, now Patterson Park in East Baltimore.
Britain's casualties at North Point, and Fort McHenry's refusal to surrender under naval bombardment, saved Baltimore and helped persuade England to sign a peace treaty in Ghent, Belgium, in 1814.
"The Battle of North Point and action in Baltimore County and the War of 1812 is so unique to Baltimore County," Mascari said. "It is the only time the continental United States was invaded by a foreign power [that was] repulsed during a declared war."
Pub Date: 11/30/97