Officials tour decaying Henryton Center in search of a reason to renovate it

Abandoned state facility cries for money, vision

May 21, 1999|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

The seclusion, scenery and architecture at Henryton Center in Marriottsville might attract buyers, but a look inside the 18 decaying buildings would send them running.

Quips about the state of buildings came fast and easily as county officials and department heads toured Henryton yesterday with a state planner, but no one thought of a use for the abandoned state property that has been on the market for seven years.

Everyone agreed that the 50-acre site that overlooks the Patapsco River is inviting and beautiful. The brick and stucco buildings have graceful porches and balconies that allow views of the lush forests. But holes in the walls allow birds and bats to fly inside and snakes to nest there. Even a cursory glance at the flaking paint, leaking roofs and buckled floors turns buyers away.

An auditorium has a movie screen and old reels of film. A bowling alley might be found in one of the cavernous basements. An in-ground swimming pool, empty and cracked, glistens in the bright sun.

"Now if we can just find a hot spring here, we will have it made," said Max Bair, executive assistant to the commissioners. "We could have the next Berkeley Springs spa here."

Other whimsical suggestions ranged from a horror movie set to a commissioners' mansion.

Commissioner Donald I. Dell asked for the tour, hoping it might generate ideas for restoring Henryton into viable economic development for the county.

"We need somebody creative," said Dell, who had his first look inside the 18 buildings. "If we can come up with good ideas, the state would probably give this place to us, just to get rid of the costs."

All it takes is vision, he said. "And, money," came the chorus of voices in reply.

It costs the state about $100,000 annually for minimal maintenance and 24-hour security. Neglect is taking its toll on the property, vacant since 1984.

`A beautiful resource'

"It really is a beautiful resource that we would like to utilize," said Greg Gabell, a state planning administrator. "But it is too expensive for the state to do more than the minimal."

The hospital opened in 1928 for African-American tuberculosis patients. Treatment in that era was sunshine and fresh air, resulting in many windows and porches. In 1962, Henryton became a center for the developmentally disabled. When that patient census dropped, the state closed Henryton.

"They cut off the heat and water 16 years ago," said Kenny Bowlin, a security guard who makes hourly rounds of the property. "It doesn't take long."

The state declared the property surplus and began to market it in 1992, but it has generated little interest. Last year, in the face of stringent opposition from neighbors, a religious organization canceled its plans to renovate the buildings into a rehabilitation and jobs training center.

"We came to look and brainstorm to see if there is any development we could encourage," said Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier. "We need an organization that has a lot of money. There is potential here if we act in the near future, but if we wait much longer, there will be no potential."

The cost of restoring 80-year-old buildings, laden with asbestos and lead paint, has deterred potential developers. Bair said the buildings were built as fortresses and that neglect is ruining them. Bowlin quickly became "the flashlight man" to the visitors scouring the dark corridors.

"Did you count how many people you had coming in?" Bowlin asked. "We don't want to have to organize a search crew."

Still, the construction is solid, much of it steel and concrete. The solid wood panel doors and lead-framed windows, many with beveled glass, are rarely part of construction today.

"Couldn't you come through and salvage?" asked Steven Horn, county director of planning.

"Where would you store it after you saved it?" answered Gabell. "You would have to have a specific use."

Dell asked his staff to take notes and jot down any possibilities for the site.

"This could be a great economic development project," said Dell. "Think of how many people you could have working on restoration here."

But cost is an issue. Asbestos abatement alone for the nearly 225,000 square feet of space is estimated at $2 million.

Dell said he would hold out for industry or business use. Bulldozing the buildings and allowing residential development "is not the use I have in mind for this property," he said.

Pub Date: 5/21/99

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