History goes up in flames Preservation: State's historic structures are being razed because jurisdictions have little or no power to prevent it.

October 08, 1998|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN STAFF

NORTH EAST -- Flames snapped through the roof, melted the windows of the house into crystal-like globs and then broke loose the mortar that had been holding the walls together. Most of the house fell. The sisters who grew up in it cried.

For the North East Volunteer Fire Company, it was a job well done. Its members had been hired to burn the house down safely.

What the firefighters had burned, though, was an irreplaceable historic landmark that until 1995 had been the oldest continuously occupied house in Cecil County, was registered with preservationists and dated to 1794. The sisters, Barbara Bordeux, 64, and Judy Hendrickson, 50, did not know the house was going to be razed.

"We just burned it because we got told to," said Jeffrey Isaacs, the North East fire chief. "It's not our job to consider if something we're supposed to burn is historical or not."

That, to preservationists, is the problem in much of Maryland: Nobody is responsible for determining whether properties are historic enough to warrant preventing developers from destroying them.

Preservationists say the razing of the house near North East is the latest example of how a lack of protection has resulted in the loss of scores of historic treasures.

"They're part of our heritage, our history, and the past is being destroyed -- the architectural history and the social history," said Sally Cairns, a member of the Cecil County Historical Trust, a private group with no legal authority. "Right now, we've got no way to stop it."

No one seems to have known that the old stone house on the outskirts of North East was scheduled to be razed except the firefighters, the Cecil County Health Department and the company that bought the property, MIE Properties Inc. of Baltimore.

Cecil is one of 12 Maryland jurisdictions with no historical commissions with authority to prevent structures from being destroyed. In the dozen jurisdictions that do have such commissions, including Baltimore and Baltimore County, they have limited power.

So, when MIE Properties decided to have the house burned, it had no obligation to notify preservationists. The company simply applied for a burning permit from the county's Health Department, which issued it without considering the structure's historical value.

Then MIE approached the fire department and told the firefighters they could burn the house as a training exercise.

Jerry Wit, an MIE vice president, said he had no idea that anyone considered the house -- with its 18-inch fieldstone walls, hand-hewn rafters and floors, and hammer-forged metal work -- to be historic. Had he known, he said, it might have affected the company's decision.

"We can claim ignorance, being 90 miles away in Baltimore," Wit said. "But you tell me there's 30 firemen burning the house down and it doesn't occur to one of them that, 'Hey, maybe we shouldn't be doing this? Maybe it's historical' "?

Bordeux and Hendrickson said their father, John Hendrickson, sold the house to MIE in 1990 with the understanding that he could live in it until he died. It was their understanding, they said, that the company would preserve the house. The company said there was no such agreement.

John Hendrickson died in 1995 after raising four daughters in the house and seeing two grandchildren married there. Last month, when Bordeux drove from her Delaware home to see about leasing the house, she found a crumbling shell, melted glass and heaps of ashes.

They were still smoldering. The house had been set afire the day before.

"The first thing in my mind was, 'Was it vandals? Who would do this?' " Bordeux said as she stood beside what is left of the house.

"To find out it was the fire department, and with no warning, we just couldn't believe it," said her sister.

Such destruction is not confined to Cecil. This year, firefighters in Queen Anne's County burned down the Sterling-Price House, revered by preservationists for its early 19th-century ) architecture.

In Baltimore County, where preservationists have some power, the Samuel Owings House in Owings Mills was demolished in 1996 and the Maryvale Tenant House in Green Spring Valley this year.

Unless more government protections are instituted, the best way for preservationists to protect a property is to buy it. But that, along with maintaining the property, can be expensive.

In Cecil County, preservationists considered buying the Ford Mansion, a late 18th-century frame-and-brick house built by a North East family prominent in politics, but decided it would be too expensive to maintain.

Instead, it was purchased by the North East Volunteer Fire Company, which burned it down.

The rubble of the house where Bordeux and Hendrickson grew up will soon be cleared away as MIE expands the truck stop next door or sells it.

"We're thinking about other properties now," Hendrickson said. "We're hoping people will realize what's going on with historical properties."

The two are philosophical about what happened. Bordeux pointed to tiger lilies struggling to push through the ashes.

"Things will come back to life around here," she told her sister. "It'll just come back in a different way."

Pub Date: 10/08/98

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