An historic impasse

House: A Timonium home's designation as a historical landmark hinders a couple's escape from suburban sprawl.

July 05, 1999|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

If there's a hell in suburbia, it may be right here at Mary Kraft's home in Timonium.

The roar of bulldozers near her back yard starts in the morning at 6: 30 sharp. The beep-beep-beep of trucks backing up to nearby businesses is audible from dawn to dusk, punctuated by a steady clatter from a masonry company across the street. And the light rail trains whistle past next door every seven minutes.

Kraft and her husband Bill, after watching their neighborhood change drastically over 36 years, decided they could bear suburban sprawl and its soundtrack no more. So they arranged to sell their house to a neighboring car dealership, put a deposit down on a new house and started to pack.

It wasn't until the buyer applied for a demolition permit that the Krafts hit an unexpected snag: their 145-year-old stone house was on a Baltimore County historical list.

Demolition was delayed indefinitely.

"I'm all packed up, ready to go, with no place to go," said Kraft, 63, as she sat at a kitchen table. In a window behind her loomed a gigantic, yellow backhoe ready to plunge its claws into the earth.

"It just makes me want to cry, I'm so mad," she said. "How dare someone come here and tell me what I can't do with my own home."

The Krafts' home -- known historically as the Thomas Fortune House -- is the last of a cluster of elegant Greek revival-style stone houses at the end of Old Padonia Road. Fortune, who owned one of the area's many quarries, was a master stonemason who built the house out of the same local stone that was used to construct the Washington Monument.

The inside of the 11-room stone house was dilapidated when the Krafts bought it in 1963 for $10,500. But they left Baltimore to find peace and quiet in the 'burbs. It was a good place, they decided, to raise four boys and two girls.

In 1979, unbeknown to the Krafts, their home was placed on the Baltimore County Historical Sites Inventory, a list of 2,700 properties in the county.

In many cases, property owners receive no notification about being added to the list. Yet under county law, a homeowner must apply for a waiver to demolish any building listed on the inventory.

The historic designation is "supposed to place no burden on the property owner," said county historian John McGrain. "At the time someone nominated the Kraft house to the list, it wasn't a burden."

But nine years ago, more and more businesses settled into the York Road corridor. The Krafts' neighbors began seeking commercial zoning designations with the hope of selling their properties for nearly 20 times what they paid.

"I didn't want to sell at that time," Mary Kraft said, shaking her head. "I loved this house. My kids grew up here. We didn't want to move."

A year ago, tracks for the light rail were laid a few yards from the Kraft house. Three other stone houses were demolished to make room for a three-story office building. To prepare for new cars and sport utility vehicles, Towson Ford began razing trees and bulldozing land into mounds of dirt.

"That was when we knew we had to move," Mary Kraft said.

In June, as the buyer sought a demolition permit, a representative of the county historical trust protested, saying the Kraft house was too historically valuable to destroy. That delayed the demolition.

"This is probably the most difficult case we've come across because there is so much history to this house," said Kimberly R. Abe, the county's administrative secretary for the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which is leaving it up to a county zoning commissioner to ultimately decide at a special hearing July 29.

"It's a matter of deciding whether the public good outweighs the rights of the property owner. It's a tough case," Abe said.

So Mary Kraft spends her days writing and calling county officials.

"Will I die if I have to live here? No," she said. "I will turn it into rooms, paint it purple and rent it out to people."

In the meantime, the deposit on the new four-bedroom house in Jarrettsville has been returned. Her mother's antique English china with its gold leaf and rose pattern is packed in the living room closet. A new sofa, originally ordered for the new house, is on its way to the stone house.

Paintings and family photos that were gathering dust on the floor have been hung on the walls again to make the empty rooms look more home-like.

But the boxes remain packed.

Kraft is counting on a quote nailed high above the clubroom door that reads, "Everything cometh to he who waiteth so long as he who waiteth, worketh like hell while he waiteth."

Pub Date: 7/05/99

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