Owner demolishes Sudbrook Park cabin Hearing had been set for February to try to save Pikesville building

December 26, 1997|By Melody Simmons | Melody Simmons,SUN STAFF

For Baltimore County historians, it was deja vu all over again.

One week after the Baltimore County Landmark Preservation Commission scheduled a February public hearing on whether to designate the oldest surviving house in Pikesville a historic site, the 190-year-old structure suddenly was razed by its new owner.

Last week's demolition of the tiny log cabin in Sudbrook Park echoed the 1996 destruction of the 1767 Samuel Owings house in Owings Mills -- demolished to make way for an office building as preservationists and the landmark commission unsuccessfully rallied to save it.

The latest incident has some local preservationists saying the county should toughen the landmarks commission's procedures for protecting historic property.

"Baltimore County may say it wants to protect these structures, but the administration has put no teeth behind it," said Melanie Anson, president of Sudbrook Park Inc., a community group. "These types of structures tend to get identified when they are at risk. They are out there and nothing is happening with them."

The cabin at 105 Church Lane predated the 1850 purchase of 850 acres in Northwest Baltimore by James Howard McHenry, grandson of John Eager Howard. The structure was used mainly as slave quarters and by tenant farmers.

The cabin contained a two-sided fireplace, three staircases, its original "summer" kitchen and the original well. Trees as old as 100 years including a red maple, a dogwood and pines were in the yard.

But county preservationists said that after the McHenry house's new owner, Steven Grossman, received certified letters informing him of the public hearing, he tore the structure down to avoid controversy.

"I'm afraid the eagerness of the citizens panicked the owner," said Baltimore County historian John McGrain, secretary of the landmark commission, who said little could be done to change the application process.

"I was going to go out and post a sign about the hearing, and here it's rendered moot. It's perfectly legal -- just like any other building with no particular protection."

Bob Rosenfeld, an engineer hired by Grossman to help develop the property, agreed.

"Grossman's options have been restricted by the neighbor's [citizens] actions and the county policies," Rosenfeld said. "At this point, they [Grossman] are rethinking their options and don't know what they are going to put in there at this time."

Rosenfeld said Grossman might build an assisted-living facility at the site -- which Grossman never believed held a slice of Pikesville's history. Rosenfeld said Grossman bought it after the house had been vacant for nearly four years.

"There was no outpouring from the community before Grossman got into it," Rosenfeld said. "There was no historic value to the house that Grossman could find when they bought it. I don't think they would have bought it if it was on a historic register or list. They would have stayed away from it -- they are interested in developing a property for assisted living and not restoring old properties."

But the demolition has saddened local preservationists.

"It's an unfortunate tragedy," said Anson, who just completed a book on Sudbrook's history. "It's irreplaceable. It added a certain charm and historic ambience to the street."

She said the situation parallels the Samuel Owings controversy, which involved County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger.

During that dispute, Ruppersberger sought a way to mollify both sides -- to preserve the house and allow the county to get the economic development benefit from the office building.

The executive failed to forward the landmark commission's recommendation to place the Owings house on a preliminary list of protected landmarks to the County Council for approval. Ruppersberger and the developer struck an agreement to raze the house and rebuild it elsewhere.

Developer Howard Brown said in October he intends to rebuild the house a 15-acre parcel on St. Thomas Lane, where the Torah Institute plans a school. That site is within a mile of the original location of the Owings house and near St. Thomas Church, where Samuel Owings is buried.

"The fact is if Baltimore County doesn't start to preserve its structures, this is going to happen over and over again, and our past is just getting eradicated," Anson said. "It's a tragedy that a developer just for his financial gain has the right to go in and tear down a structure that has value historically."

Pub Date: 12/26/97

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