He's got a dream of a fixer-upper

Curator: Thanks to a program designed to protect historic homes, Danny Fowler has 200-year-old Hockley for the rest of his life.

January 06, 1999|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

The house at 5925 River Road -- known as Hockley after its first owner more than 200 years ago -- has a leaky bathtub, no heat, rotting ceilings, and a bumpy driveway that would make all but the newest four-wheel-drive rattle and sigh.

But Danny Fowler, the new resident curator, couldn't be happier there. In his wildest dreams, he never expected to live on 3 acres in the Patapsco Valley State Park, north of the historic town of Elkridge, where his neighbors are birds and deer, and the Patapsco River flows through the trees.

Fowler, 48, has promised the state, which owns Hockley, that he will spend at least $138,230 on it in the next five years in labor and materials. In exchange, he gets to live there for the rest of his life -- rent-free, tax-free, mortgage-free.

That's not bad for a self-described hippie who never saved much money and who sums up his life with the words: "It seemed like a good idea at the time."

"Really, it's a great thing for all concerned," said Fowler, who was granted the resident curatorship before Christmas. "The state has no budgeting or wherewithal to maintain the place and I would never have been able to afford this bucolic loveliness in Maryland."

The house, built by English craftsmen in the Colonial era for the owner of the now-defunct Hockley Nail factory, is not much to look at, after years of neglect.

Fowler, a cabinetmaker and master carpenter, sees nothing but possibilities in the stone-and-brick house with two floors, three fireplaces, and a large screened-in porch.

"In its early days, it was a very impressive, highfalutin kind of place," Fowler said. His plan, approved by state officials, is to build another porch out the front door, replace the roof, install a boiler for the radiator system, refinish the white oak floors, knock out an interior wall to create a sun room, remodel the kitchen and bathroom and put in drainage pipes to keep the house from washing away.

He also plans to convert the masonry block garage in the back yard into a workshop, clean up the natural spring that runs across the driveway, and buy a pair of goats to keep his coon hound, Granger, company in the 3-acre back yard.

He said he has to preserve the historical integrity of the house, especially on the outside, where it is visible from River Road when the trees are bare. He has a little more leeway on the inside, he said, which the public will see only three days a year when he is required to hold an open house.

While he works on the house the next five years, Fowler will continue to work in clients' homes. Once Hockley is finished, he said, he can rest.

"In five years, I'll be able to retire," he said.

Fowler is a man who takes pleasure in small things, such as several handmade spindles in the bannister, the random-width oak floor with wooden pegs covering the screws, and the way the bricks in the kitchen fireplace radiate heat after the fire has been burning for a while.

His favorite thing about the house is that it's in the middle of the woods, sandwiched between the park and the Interstate 895 right-of-way, and he won't have any neighbors.

"You can only see my house in the winter," he said. "In the summer I'm lost, and that's the way I like it."

The Maryland Resident-Curatorship program started in 1982, said Ross Kimmel, supervisor of cultural resources management for the State Forest and Park Service. During the 1960s and 1970s, Kimmel said, the state snapped up land as fast as it could, hardly giving thought to the hundreds of historic structures it was buying by default.

Not wanting to raze those buildings, but not having funds to keep them up, Kimmel said, the state decided to give contracts to people like Fowler who would fix up the houses in exchange for living there the rest of their lives. The idea, Kimmel said, caught on: Maryland has about 40 resident curators, and other states are starting similar programs.

The program owes much of its success to a renewed interest in historical areas, Kimmel said.

"Now people are more interested in what they call vernacular architecture, buildings that Joe and Mary Six-pack lived in," he said.

Fowler's home, Kimmel said, is probably the oldest in the program.

Built before the Revolutionary War, Fowler said, it was a Union encampment during the Civil War, a speakeasy during Prohibition and, according to rumor, a brothel in the early 20th century -- which amuses Fowler.

"I think that's fantastic," he said. "I'm living in a cathouse in the middle of the woods."

"A lot of people get the notion that this is a rich people's program," Kimmel said. "But it's not. Most of them are just get-it-done kind of people. They get it done themselves. I find that money in the bank, or lack of money in the bank, isn't a reliable indicator of how well someone is going to do."

Kimmel said Fowler, for one, is a man who is "not afraid to roll up his sleeves and do hard work."

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