Patching up history

Curator: Wayne Leek will be able to live rent-free in historic Gray's Mill in Patapsco Valley State Park after he invests almost $180,000 of labor and material restoring the mansion.

February 16, 1999|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

One hundred fifty years ago, the house known as Gray's Mill on the east side of the Patapsco River was one of the finest mansions in the area, and its owners threw parties that attracted prominent politicians and visionaries of the day.

Now, the River Road house -- not a mansion by today's standards -- is little more than a ruin, with half a roof and graffiti-coated walls. But Wayne Leek, the new resident curator, plans to make it palatial again, with a spiral staircase, spacious living room, French doors and windows overlooking Patapsco Valley State Park adjacent to what is now Catonsville.

Leek, 39, is one of about 40 people participating in the Maryland Resident-Curatorship program, founded in 1982 to save the hundreds of historic buildings on parkland that the state cannot afford to maintain. The former Arbutus resident has promised to restore the house over the next five years and invest at least $179,900 in services and materials. In exchange, he gets to live there for the rest of his life without paying a dime.

"The Department of Natural Resources doesn't have the resources to save historical properties," he said. "And if these kinds of things are going to be around for the future, it's basically up to us as citizens to get it done."

Leek's new home is a holdover from the days of the Industrial Revolution when mills and quarries lined the river in what is now Baltimore and Howard counties.

Paul J. Travers, author of "The Patapsco: Baltimore's River of History," wrote that the mansion was owned for a time by Edward Gray, the Irish immigrant who owned Gray's Cotton Manufactory just upriver. The property, which dates to the early 1800s, also once housed workers from the Gray and Ellicott family mills, according to a state press release.

Built before quarries cropped up along the river, the oldest part of the house is made of irregularly shaped stones from the river. Later additions are made of more symmetrical quarried stone, Leek said.

The house, longer than it is wide, is two stories high and has large windows overlooking the river. Although it is a five-minute walk to historic Ellicott City, there are no other houses in sight.

Gray's son-in-law, John Pendleton Kennedy, lived in part of the house until the flood of 1868 and wrote that it was "one of the most romantic and beautiful nooks in the world" with "all manner of rural felicities," according to Travers.

Kennedy also wrote that troops would pass by the house in trains that ran along the river "and as they see my flag, which hangs from the library, I get the cheers of a regiment at a time. 100,000 have gone by, hurrahing, shouting, sometimes dancing on the tops of cars."

At the turn of the century, the building housed a generating station and later a substation for Consolidated Gas, Electric, Light and Power Co., according to the press release. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources bought the building and the land it stands on as part of Patapsco Valley State Park in the early 1960s.

"Friends say I live in a postcard," Leek said recently, standing in his sloping wooded back yard next to a creek that tumbles to the river. As he spoke, a car driving by slowed to catch a glimpse of the ruin. "I say, `Naw, I live in a fishbowl.' "

Eight years ago, the property was so overgrown that the ruin could hardly be seen from the road. But Leek glimpsed it through the trees one day while driving by and immediately got a hankering to buy it and restore it. He didn't know it was a historic building.

He saw just an old house with a lot of potential, and wanted to get to work. He entered into a contract with the state to clean up the 3.3-acre yard and restore the exterior of the building, and last week signed the contract to become resident curator.

Leek, the son of an Arbutus truck driver and a housewife, has spent much of his life building. He worked as a combat engineer in the Army for six years, specializing in carpentry and masonry and cross-training in supply ordering. He is also a certified welder, a plumber's apprentice and has worked as a licensed home improvement contractor for 10 years. Now he runs the wood shop for Fandango Special Event Productions in Baltimore.

"My resume reads thicker than a Bible," he said.

Leek has other interests, ones he hopes to pursue when he's done restoring Gray's Mill. This year, he plans to graduate from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County with a degree in visual and performing arts. A former band member and studio operator, he wants to return to music. He says he'd also like to try his hand at writing some books, possibly historical ones.

He has his work cut out for him at the crumbling mansion by the river.

"It's a monster or a bear for a starter home," he said, sitting in a temporary cabin behind his future home. After a pause, he added: "But once you get it done, it's your final home."

Pub Date: 2/16/99

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