132-year-old foundry drawing preservationists They hope to persuade Laurel council to delay razing historic building

October 01, 1998|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

Laurel residents are hoping to preserve a 132-year-old industrial building, one of the suburban town's last ties to its milling roots, from the wrecking ball the City Council has aimed at it.

People in and around the historic district petitioned the council a few weeks ago for a six-month stay of execution for the Fairhall Foundry -- time to find grants to pay for restoration of the badly damaged stone building. Mayor Frank P. Casula is pushing the council to replace the building with a parking lot for the Department of Public Works. He says the foundry is so damaged it's a potentially costly hazard.

"The building is unsafe, and it's got to come down," Casula said. "I've got a letter from a lawyer saying we're liable because we're allowing this building to stand. If you demolish it, you're in trouble. If you don't demolish it, you're in trouble."

But supporters say the building has stood for 132 years, so what's another six months?

"The building is obviously in disrepair, but you have to look at all the ways you can preserve it, because once it's gone, it's gone," said Sidney Moore, who has spearheaded the preservation campaign.

The Fairhall Foundry, at First and Little Montgomery streets, was built in 1866 and named after machine-shop owner Thomas Fairhall.

According to local historian Karen Lubieniecki, the mills that established Laurel and employed most of its residents often commissioned Fairhall to build looms, weaving cards, gears and other equipment.

Mills became uncertain businesses at the turn of the century, as cotton prices inflated and decreased, and Laurel residents sought jobs in Washington and Baltimore. By the 1920s, all of Laurel's mills were closed. In the 1930s and '40s, all but one were demolished. The last mill burned to the ground in 1992.

The foundry was converted into a flour and feed warehouse between 1908 and 1914. It remained a feed store until 1965, PTC when fire gutted the building. After it was repaired, it was used as a commercial garage but was damaged in three other fires.

The city leased the building in 1990 and used it for storage until damaged floor joists and roof supports made it unsafe, according to Steve Groh, director of finance.

Some items are still stored in the building, but the city will not allow workers inside to retrieve them, City Administrator Ernest J. Zaccanelli said.

The two-story, rough-cut rubble stone building is the last industrial building in Laurel from the mill era, Lubieniecki said.

"We think the building has enough historic value that we should look at the options," she said. "It may be expensive, but sometimes its worthwhile to go the extra mile, because once it's gone, it's gone forever."

Said Moore: "It's technically outside of the historic district. They just didn't think, 'Old building, we might want to keep it.' "

But Casula said that's not what happened. When the city renegotiated a lease in 1992, the agreement included an option to purchase the land.

That year, the city hired a consultant to assess the building and advise what repairs should be made. Several recommendations were made, but the city did not act on them.

This year, Casula had a consultant assess the foundry again. This time the report said decay of the roof and support beams was severe. Moreover, the interior has been remodeled several times through the years, leaving very little of historical significance, according to Zaccanelli, the city administrator. Little more than a shell remains.

It would take immediate action to save the foundry and $500,000 that the mayor says the city does not have.

"We, in the city, don't have it," Casula said. "I won't put a dime of city money to restore the building."

But he said he would hold off on demolition until he meets with Moore and others who want to save the building and might grant them a few months to explore options, though not six months.

Supporters have been gathering information from preservation organizations to learn about possible sources of assistance.

"When you tell people it's going to come down so the city can park snowplows, you get an interesting reaction," Lubieniecki said.

"I think the city has to rethink its priorities."

Pub Date: 10/01/98

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