Farewell for a family farmhouse Frederick aldermen approve demolition

January 25, 1998|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

FREDERICK -- Ringed by barbed wire and tract homes, the Sebastian Derr House can be found in both a Frederick subdivision and on real estate death row. It faces what some call a senseless execution and others a merciful end.

Either way, it is an unhappy final chapter for one of Frederick County's oldest buildings, a log-and-stone farmhouse historians have described as one of the most important early examples of German-American architecture in the mid-Atlantic region.

But on some unspecified date this year, a contractor will begin dismantling the house, timber by timber, taking apart a structure that has stood on these gently rolling hills since well before the steam engine was invented.

"The decision has caused some real anguish in Frederick County," said Orlando Ridout V, an architectural historian with the Maryland Historical Trust who has labeled the building an "extremely rare historical and cultural resource."

"I'm very saddened that we're going to lose this house. But I also know it's a reasonable resolution."

Not everyone believes it is so reasonable.

Last week, the city's Board of Aldermen sealed Derr House's fate, voting 3-2 to sign a memorandum giving permission to raze the 243-year-old structure. It was a deal hammered out by Ridout with the subdivision's developer, its consultants and a local preservation group.

The agreement's authors said the building has to be torn down because it is too damaged and termite-ridden to be preserved, and its surroundings are too crowded with new townhouses.

In return, Natelli Communities, the developer, has agreed to document the building as it is demolished with photos and drawings. In addition, it will preserve the site for archaeological study, donate a conservation easement for another historic building on the property and give $100,000 toward historic preservation and research in Frederick County.

Opponents of the deal believe the city has set a dangerous precedent that future developers will emulate.

"There are many other buildings in better condition and worse condition around Frederick that are worthy of preservation that are bound to removed from the face of the Earth," said Douglas Claytor, a professional building restorer. "It baffles the imagination."

The threat to Derr House began more than a decade ago when a developer purchased the 300-acre farm from the Derr family, who had held it since 1755.

As part of an agreement to have the land annexed by Frederick, the owners pledged to leave intact its three historic buildings, Sebastian Derr's house, his cooperage (a small building where barrels were made) and the house he built for his son, John.

But that development never came to fruition. The property was acquired in 1994 by Natelli, which promptly restored the cooperage and turned it into a real estate office, but failed to do much with the two old homes.

The developer began building an ambitious, 685-unit subdivision, "Dearbought," named after the farm's earliest recorded title. It's a combination of colonial-style townhouses and single-family dwellings starting at slightly more than $110,000 apiece.

Ironically, the development plays off the property's historic nature. Streets are named after early settlers. Its advertising "Fact Sheet" touts "plans for a restored farmhouse."

What customers can see, however, is a crumbling two-story building surrounded by a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. The porch is on the verge of collapse. Some walls are held up by plywood. One stone wall has fallen away entirely.

"If it made sense to save it, we'd be all for saving it," said Thomas A. Natelli, president of the Montgomery County development company. "There was clearly outright neglect for decades prior to our involvement."

Armed with a recent report by historical consultants R. Christopher Goodwin & Associates which concluded that most of the building's materials couldn't be reused, Natelli pressed the city to let him tear it down.

Mayor James S. Grimes said he was willing to compromise because it meant preserving the John Derr House and he saw little in the older Sebastian Derr house that was worth saving, particularly in the midst of a subdivision.

"This would have been a matter of reconstructing, tearing down the old house and building a new one with mostly new materials," said Grimes. "The Derr House used to be in the middle of a farm field. Now, it's within 50 feet of the back porches of a bunch of modern homes."

Opponents of the compromise blame city officials. Had the city demanded that the house be restored earlier -- even a few years earlier -- the outcome might have been better, they say.

"The city would rather look after the welfare of this developer than an asset of the citizens," said Joe Lubozynski, a board member of the Frederick County Landmarks Foundation. "The house needs a lot of work, but it's not impossible to do."

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