Sykesville may not have Victorian grandeur, but the turn-of-the-century charm of a working-class town is slowly re-emerging on its bustling Main Street.
The town is restoring its storefronts and homes, hoping that its history, riverfront and railroad ties can make it an antiques mecca for Carroll County and beyond.
But preservation is battling practicality in this town of 3,500. The issue: vinyl siding.
In a feud that has spilled into public hearings and the courts, residents are scrapping over the Historic District Commission's insistence on preserving Sykesville's character by maintaining the original wood siding of buildings.
Some owners have vowed to let their buildings rot rather than give in to the commission's rules for restoration. One even turned down the town's offer of free labor and paint.
So today, about a half-dozen eyesores mar the newfound charm -- two of them at major crossroads.
"Of course, those buildings hurt business and keep Main Street dumpy amid this revitalization," said Ron Jackson, president of the Sykesville Business Association. "But some of these long-timers feel like they have been dealt with highhandedly, and this is their protest."
At public hearings, the dissidents showed vinyl samples that they insisted had the grainy look of wood. They asked the Town Council to intervene, but the mayor and all six members supported the historic commission. Several owners have sued the town, vowing to let the courts decide.
"I am not worried about the lawsuits," said Mark Rychwalski, chairman of the Historic District Commission. "I am confident we are doing the right thing."
The commission has the final say on exterior renovations. Members adhere to guidelines established by the U.S. Department of the Interior, standards that prohibit vinyl siding in all 38 historic districts in the state.
No one in the historic district is exempt from a review. Even a 110-year-old Main Street church could not begin a $600,000 addition four years ago without a promise to keep its facade intact.
With a historic trust grant to spur restoration and a consultant to make regulations more user-friendly, the town is hoping for a compromise before the lawsuits reach court in December.
"We are working to make the historic district concept more palatable with low-interest loans and tax credits," said Mayor Jonathan S. Herman, a restoration contractor. "If a minority does not want to participate, the town cannot be swayed by them. We are doing what is best for the community."
None of the vinyl proponents would comment about the lawsuits or the dispute.
But the commission has won a few converts.
Fred and Elaine Gossage restored the facade of their building at Main Street and Sandosky Road, but pushed hard for less-costly vinyl on the back and sides. The commission refused. The only compromise offered was vinyl shutters.
"We were opposed to painting the entire exterior from a cost standpoint, but when we looked at the historic relevance and significance, we decided to do it right," said Elaine Gossage. "It is neat to bring this building back to its original look."
Before painting could begin, the Gossages had workers caulking, scraping, sanding and replacing rotting wood -- all labor-intensive and costly undertakings. The work could last about seven years. Vinyl is often guaranteed for two decades with little or no maintenance.
"It would cost about $12,000 to cover an average building here with vinyl and about $4,000 to paint it," said Matthew H. Cand-land, town manager. "With a good, professional paint job, you might get about eight years."
Herman refused to compare "refurbishing with covering a building in plastic. They are two separate worlds," he said.
Town archives are giving today's merchants a glimpse of yesteryear, when trains and wagons brought customers down the dusty thoroughfare that was Main Street in the early 1900s to the dry goods, hardware and department stores. A local lumber mill along the banks of the Patapsco River made wood plentiful and convenient, and everybody built with it.
Those original store owners are long gone. Sykesville went through its own depression in the 1980s, when fewer than 30 percent of its businesses were occupied. Its bustling train station was abandoned. Dingy taverns marred its riverfront.
But in the last decade, buyers have noticed the town on the Carroll and Howard line. New merchants and antiques dealers have filled long-empty buildings. There are no vacancies.
"I wanted small-town charm, and I wanted to be on Main Street, U.S.A.," said Elaine Gossage, who moved her insurance business to Sykesville from Bowie. "I feel like I am back from yesteryear and working at a much quieter pace."
When the Gossages renovated the second story into four apartments, they discovered 12-foot ceilings, hardwood floors and wide molding. "We had all the comforts of new and all the charm of old," she said. They rented all four units in a day.
The dingy riverfront taverns are torn down, and Sykesville is working with Howard County to landscape and develop the riverfront into parkland. The town refurbished the train station and leased it as a restaurant, which has won several awards for the restoration and cuisine.
Like the Gossages, many others have painstakingly repaired intricate trim, replaced deteriorating siding and painted exteriors original colors.
Many of the residences within the historic district are also getting face-lifts. Ed Cinkole, who bought a century-old colonial on Springfield Avenue 18 months ago, is living through what will be years of renovating. All work has been with guidance from the commission.
"This town is serious about preserving its downtown," Cand-land said. "Historic flavor is our niche. We need to guard it at all costs."
Pub Date: 10/02/98