Couple salvaging history from old UM farmhouse

Neighbors

January 11, 2000|By John J. Snyder | John J. Snyder,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

A STURDY Victorian-era farmhouse on the edge of Long Reach village soon will come tumbling down. Squeezed between Route 108 and the new Route 100 at Snowden River Parkway, it is in the path of progress.

A few years ago, the 20-acre farm was a lively place where graduate students worked with veterinarians to research the health problems of horses and cattle. A vaccine for Potomac fever, an equine disease, was developed there.

The old farmhouse served as living quarters for the University of Maryland's Horse Research Farm (recently known as the Ellicott City Facility of the Central Maryland Research and Education Center) -- one of 10 agricultural research facilities in the state.

The farm was 124 acres in 1935, when the university bought it from Herman F. Otten. The Maryland School for the Deaf was built on the land; some acreage went to the county and state.

In 1997, the university sold the property to a developer. It was acquired in November by Merritt Properties Inc. of Baltimore.

"It's a microcosm of the way Howard County is going," said Robert Bassler Jr., director of Research Facility Management for the university. "With the changing neighborhood, we had people disturbing us. We couldn't conduct our research. People treated us as a national park."

Last week, a cold wind blew through the open farmhouse windows, flipping the pages of textbooks left behind.

Rusting machinery and old tractor parts lay scattered about the outbuildings. Loose tin roofing creaked. The steady drone of cars on Route 100 was the only other sound.

In the spring, workers will raze the house and outbuildings, and masons will lay foundations for an office park. Retailers will open shops on the ground floor. A restaurant will sprout from a concrete pad.

The small pond back from the road will stay; the lone horse in the pasture will go.

Joyce and Tim Foresman love old houses, and they have beaten the bulldozers to this one.

The couple received permission from Merritt to collect architectural detailing from the house before it is razed. They will recycle these bits of historic decoration in their home, which is similar to the farmhouse in age and design.

It's the least they can do to preserve our county's agricultural heritage, the Foresmans say.

Homesteaders in the Maryland Department of Natural Resources' Resident-Curators program, the Elkridge residents are rehabilitating a 19th-century house in Patapsco Valley State Park. In exchange for restoring the neglected building, they have been granted a life tenancy. They pay no mortgage or taxes.

Instead, they invest their time and money in making their property habitable -- and historically correct.

"Trying to find parts in good condition from the late 1880s is hard," Joyce Foresman said.

Buying reproductions of old moldings, banisters and other details is expensive.

Built in the 1880s without "gingerbread" or highly stylized Victorian-era detailing, the farmhouse is a reminder of the county's agricultural past.

Foresman said she drove past the building many times, but only became interested when Merritt erected signs advertising space in the new office park. After seeing the signs, she pulled into the long driveway.

"I went into the house, looked around and saw pieces that would work in our own property," she said.

She called Merritt to ask permission to salvage parts. Merritt officials said she was welcome to take whatever she wanted.

So on Saturday, the Foresmans and family friend Scott Rabenhorst, 19, wielded pry bars to gently separate varnished woodwork from the main staircase.

Harvesting a well-preserved oak banister was their prime objective.

The banister -- anchored by a large newel post with carved oak-leaf rosettes -- was standing firmly at the bottom of the steps. Turned from a single piece of wood, the post showed little wear despite its prominent place in the front hall.

It took the Foresmans and Rabenhorst three hours to complete the painstaking deconstruction of the banister.

Finally, after all was pulled apart, they found a pleasant surprise. The newel post was not deeply set or bolted into the floor joists, as they had expected. It was nailed in on top of the boards. Pushing it from side to side broke the heavy post free.

After carefully adding the post to the pile of handrails and spindles on the kitchen floor, they moved to the parlor.

Using hammers, rubber mallets, the pry bars and a "sawzall" -- an electric saw that cuts through almost anything -- the Foresmans and Rabenhorst pried off other usable pieces of wood trim.

Decorative iron door hinges, sash weights and pulleys, and sections of the tongue-and-groove heartwood pine floor were loaded onto the kitchen floor.

Rabenhorst has been helping the Foresmans with renovations since he was 14.

Now a freshman at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, he is carrying a double major -- computer engineering, and imaging and digital arts.

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