Last remnant of `utopia' focus of rezoning dispute

Beach: A strip of Anne Arundel riverfront, once the clubhouse and marina of a summer colony, could become a private home, closing the beach to the public.

April 28, 1999|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

William Randolph Hearst would try anything to boost his newspapers' circulation, offering his subscribers racehorses, gold coins, fabricated stories about starving orphans and yellow journalism that ignited the Spanish-American War.

But the scheme hatched by his Washington Herald was so outrageous that he fired the publisher responsible for it. The Herald built a utopian, all-white summer colony north of Annapolis, used its front page to sell lots in "Herald Harbor" and required those buying land to subscribe to the newspaper.

The quirky colony of bungalows has been swallowed by suburbia over the years. And it may lose the last relic of its strange past tomorrow, when Anne Arundel County considers whether to rezone its marina and beach so a high-tech company executive can turn them into his home.

Thomas W. Ruff is fighting history, with some residents arguing that the beach should remain as open to the public as it has been since the 1920s.

That was when the Herald Harbor Club drew crowds from Washington and Baltimore for sailing, dancing, boxing matches, moonlit banquets, greyhound races and gamblingwith one-armed bandits.

At stake is a golden crescent of sand in a waterfront community with piers for those wealthy enough to buy them but little beach access for those who live even a block inland.

"People here in Herald Harbor are at least 30 years behind the times," says John Lloyd, cashier at the Herald Harbor Inn general store.

"It's strange, quiet, friendly for the most part. We had a community beach until it was bought by a private homeowner.

"People are very upset about that."

Little Coney Island

Ruff says his beach was never public and complains that he has been subjected to the kind of sleazy attacks made famous by Hearst's newspapers.

"The history of this place is just spectacular. It was Maryland's little Coney Island," says Ruff. "But now it's had its time, and it's time to move on.

"By the time I bought this property, it was a hellhole. There was trash on the beach and kudzu growing everywhere."

Ruff notes that the clubhouse he hopes to convert into a home for his wife and twin 4-year-old daughters is not even the original.

The real Herald Harbor clubhouse -- which had a ballroom, stage and restaurant -- was condemned and replaced in 1985 because it had fallen into neglect.

Today the beach club is a vinyl-sided restaurant with a stunning view of the Severn River but a sign that warns: "Private Property. Violators Will Be Prosecuted."

Down a flight of wooden stairs on a kudzu-covered bluff is a volleyball net sagging beside a beach.

A pier zigzags into the misty bay, bits of crab shell on its rotting planks. Weeds sprout through the foundation of a bathhouse where sun worshipers once shimmied into wool swimming trunks.

"The club followed the legend of the newspaper," Ruff says. "Both went bankrupt."

Child of circulation wars

The history of the Herald Harbor Club is rooted in the newspaper wars of the nation's capital after the turn of the century.

The Washington Herald was founded in 1906, and by the 1920s it was locked in a ferocious circulation battle with the Washington Post and three other dailies.

It was a dark era in journalism.

In July 1919, the Post helped spark a race riot in which 40 people were killed. It ran a front-page story decrying alleged "recent attacks on women by Negroes" and issued a call to white vigilantes to fight back, according to Carol Felsenthal's book, "Power, Privilege and the Post."

Money-making scheme

The Herald was not free of questionable behavior.

It was a populist, xenophobic rag that splashed partisan editorials across its front page and proudly touted the slogan "America First!" above an eagle on its masthead.

"Wall Street Owns G.O.P.," shouted one headline from 1924.

The newspaper was losing a half-million dollars a year by then. Trying to stave off bankruptcy, the paper's publisher and circulation manager concocted a scheme. The paper bought 460 acres of hilly peach orchards 5 miles north of the Naval Academy.

The Herald used front-page news stories to sell the lots.

The plan was to earn a profit off the real estate deals and offer low prices for the 25-foot-wide lots only to those who agreed to subscribe to the newspaper.

On the morning of Sunday, May 24, the Herald published a banner headline: "Herald Harbor Plans Announced!"

A place for the family

The newspaper enticed readers with descriptions of a utopian summer colony for the paper's working-class "family," where they could chat about the news as they swam, sailed and danced in a waterfront ballroom.

The Herald proclaimed that its utopia would be "of the people, for the people and by the people."

But not all people.

"We propose to keep it clean and respectable and free from offenses against the tastes of refined families. This particular club and colony is for white people," the paper wrote.

Within two days, the Herald claimed it had sold 2,000 lots. That money was being used to pay off other Herald real estate debts.

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