House involved in another battle

Historic: The Todd House in North Point, a focal point during the War of 1812, is in need of renovations after vandalism, but state and county officials disagree about how to save the site.

January 26, 1999|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

When a British force landed at North Point in 1814, three soldiers from the First Baltimore Hussars were posted as lookouts in an unspectacular, two-story frame house that would serve the nation well.

The soldiers' timely warning from the North Point peninsula -- and the failure of the Royal Navy to capture Fort McHenry -- helped turn back the invaders before they could reach Baltimore. Weary and angry, a retreating redcoat tossed a torch into the house and burned it to the ground.

Today, the rebuilt structure in eastern Baltimore County known as Todd House, sits rotting and vandalized while state and county officials, preservationists and local historians scramble to save the place that housed the same family for three centuries.

Beer bottles litter the grounds, and doors and windows are boarded up on the house on North Point Road that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and Baltimore County Historic Landmarks. A major section of the marble headstone of William Shaw, who died in 1874, lies on the ground in the nearby tiny Todd family cemetery. Inside, vandals have smashed antique china pieces with bricks and stolen priceless items.

"The house is a vandal's dream," said local archaeologist Kathy Lee Erlandson Liston. "It's called demolition by neglect."

Who should tackle the job of buying the house and the 4.5-acre site -- and shape and guide the site's role -- has thrown government officials and private sector interests into limbo.

"There are private sector people looking at it. The state thinks Baltimore County should spend a lot of money on it. The county thinks the state should spend a lot of money on it," said John McGrain, county historian. "We're in kind of a loop of indecision."

There is one point of agreement: The house and the peninsula, which dates to 7500 B.C., are steeped in history and should serve as an educational center and museum for schoolchildren and future generations.

`Value of our history'

Such rich history is important to the culture and identity of those who reside in eastern Baltimore County, long limited to blue-collar icons like steel and auto plants.

"We are more than just steel mill people," said Pearl Gintling, a North Point resident and community leader. "The value of our history has been downplayed by an industrial giant like Bethlehem Steel being next to us."

The cost of restoring Todd House would be expensive. Massive holes are in the walls and second-story flooring. Portions of the roof, walls and masonry are rotting. The basement constantly leaks, according to a county inspection in 1987. The inspection cited "willful neglect" of the structure.

The property was placed on the market two years ago for $295,000 after the latest owner, Elmer H. Cook Jr., who bought it from the Todd family, died. Cook maintained nominal residence there.

William Mayer, a local Realtor handling the Todd House, said potential buyers from Michigan and New England have expressed interest. "Some like the history, some like the waterfront location," Mayer said.

According to various estimates, buying the property and renovation could cost from $600,000 to $2 million. The private group pushing the refurbishing project, the Friends of Todd Inheritance, has $75,000 in promised pledges.

In addition to squabbling among state and county officials over who should pay and direct the project, there is disagreement about who should lead the crusade to save Todd House.

"Things must be thought through," said Michael H. Davis, executive officer to County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger. "History is important and I am not saying we won't do it. But how would such an effort be structured?"

Pivotal battle

The Todd House was part of the pivotal Battle of North Point, fought by Americans as a delaying action that allowed completion of fortifications around Baltimore. After seeing the extensive earthworks at Hampstead Hill and losing their top general in combat, British commanders withdrew to the sea. Three months later, the British signed the treaty of Ghent in Belgium and ended the war of 1812.

Long before the battle, the peninsula was brimming with colorful history that was revealed in an archaeological dig by Hettie Ballweber in 1988. She discovered that several Native American tribes hunted on the peninsula off the Patapsco River.

The Todd House site was settled about 1664 when Thomas Todd of Gloucester County, Va., purchased almost 700 acres. Todd collected rent from European settlers and owned slaves who worked on the property, according to Eleanor Lukanich, president of the Dundalk-Patapsco Neck Historical Society.

`Down to the bucks'

For several years, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources has been interested in purchasing the property and leasing Todd House to a qualified group to restore and operate it. The state wants Baltimore County to contribute as much as $300,000.

"No one has money in the bank," said Ross Kimmel, a DNR official working on the project. "It's down to the bucks."

Davis said the executive remains interested in restoring Todd House because "he understands that history means so much to the people.

"But we can't be left holding the bag on these projects if something goes wrong, no matter how valuable and important they are," said Davis.

"If we take $250,000 and apply it to Todd House, will that mean we hire fewer teachers, open up fewer Police Athletic League centers?" Davis asked. "We have to answer to taxpayers."

One of them is A. Morris Todd Jr., 77, of Towson, one of nine surviving family members.

"Naturally, I'd like to see the house restored, but nobody can afford it," Todd said. "It's dragged on way too long. It gets more expensive every year, and no one seems to know what's going to happen next."

Pub Date: 1/26/99

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