Historic farmhouse is saved Willowbrook spared from demolition

January 05, 1998|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,SUN STAFF

Like many other historic buildings in Baltimore County, Willowbrook, a 19th-century farmhouse in Cockeysville, seemed destined for a sad fate -- being demolished to make way for a subdivision.

But now, in an unusual twist, a developer and a real estate agent have rescued the house, which is perched on a hillside with a sweeping view of Towson.

"We didn't feel it was right to tear it down," said Ronald O. Schaftel, president of Cockeysville-based Southern Land Co. "We have a lot of respect for that property."

While other historic county properties, such as the Samuel Owings house in Owings Mills and, most recently, the Sudbrook Park log cabin in Pikesville, have been razed by developers, Willowbrook was spared when Schaftel found an 11th-hour buyer.

Schaftel acquired the ramshackle clapboard house in 1996 as part of a 33-acre parcel on Warren Road east of York Road, purchased for a housing development. The house is believed to have been built in the 1830s. Early last year, after months of trying to market the 2 1/2 -story house on a half-acre lot, he faced the prospect of no buyers.

The house was not on any landmark lists, so it had no protection from destruction. But even with a demolition permit in hand, Schaftel said, he couldn't bear to level the old house without a last attempt to save it.

"In our heart of hearts, we thought we'd hang in there a little bit longer, hoping something would happen," Schaftel said.

Within weeks, something did.

After learning of the plight of Willowbrook last winter, real estate agent Betsy Dunn solicited the listing from Schaftel, hoping she could sell the house that looked so forlorn.

While sitting in the living room during an open house, surrounded by peeling, cracked walls, she did find a buyer -- herself.

"We love old houses," said Dunn, who has been married to Charles Dunn for 30 years. "It had good lines, good bones. The architecture is outstanding."

Costly renovations needed

But the couple couldn't get financing for the house until last summer because of the home's poor condition and outdated utilities. Now, the house, which cost the Dunns about $125,000, is undergoing a renovation that could add another $150,000 to the price tag.

"Some of my friends think it's wonderful," Dunn said of the renovation. "Some think I've lost my mind."

County historian John McGrain calls the style of the farmhouse "whimsical, not built to any plan."

"It's an example of architecture you don't see built anymore a good example of the ingenuity of the day's carpenters," he said.

The center-hall house with two porches and columns started as a rustic log cabin.

House's history

In what Dunn calls a "wonderful find," an 1833 letter recently was discovered by carpenter Dan Daugherty in an attic alcove of the house. The paper documents that the log home was to be built by John Merryman -- a descendant of one of Baltimore County's earliest settlers -- "to cause exertion" after friends told him he was "killing himself with idleness."

Today, the original wood in the back of the house -- exposed during a termite check -- is as sturdy as ever. But the modest home has been enlarged over the years.

In 1907, a front addition by noted architect James S. Nussear Jr. of Timonium was integrated into the house. The result has been described by the Maryland Historical Trust as an eclectic blend of rural, folk-Germanic architecture with early 20th-century classical revival elements.

The trust, which evaluated Willowbrook after it was purchased by Schaftel, says the house with "its good craftsmanship" is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

"Preservationists typically believe these [houses] are important to our architectural heritage," said trust preservation officer Lauren Bowlin. "When they're gone, they're gone for good."

Dunn eventually hopes to pursue historic status, she says.

'It is a solid house'

Last week, though, her mind was on more practical matters -- such as getting windows back into the house as snow sprinkled the interior. She also wanted to reach a point in the repair work where the new gas heating system, replacing a clunky boiler in the basement, could be turned on.

Dunn, who has renovated other old homes with her husband, calls the house, with its new coat of bright yellow paint, "cute and cheerful."

"We found it is a solid house," she said of the seven-bedroom, 3 1/2 -bath house with four working fireplaces.

But until she and her husband sell their Cape Cod in Glen Arm, they -- and two of their four children who are still at home -- won't be able to move into the farmhouse.

The Dunns, whose current property is on more than 2 acres, are excited about being part of a new community, where Pulte Home Corp. is building 42 houses, selling for $250,000 to $300,000.

"We're not in a neighborhood now. Our kids wish we were," Dunn said. "And there's a wonderful view, even though we're surrounded by houses."

Pub Date: 1/05/98

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