East Towson residents seek to save old house

Tattered log structure is symbol of black heritage, they say

June 06, 2000|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

There's not much left of the charred wood house at 437 E. Pennsylvania Ave. in Towson.

The roof is caved in, the insides are drenched and the scorched wooden siding is falling apart. The two-story house, damaged by fire two years ago, is surrounded by weeds and debris.

None of that matters to Adelaide Bentley, whose family has lived in the predominantly black neighborhood of East Towson for five generations. She wants to save the building, one of the few log houses left in the Towson area, because it is part of an African-American heritage that she and others believe should be preserved.

Mike Miller, who lives next door to the dilapidated dwelling, feels the same way. Carol Allen, president of Historic Towson Inc., supports the effort, too.

To them, the log house is also a symbol of the fight to preserve their neighborhood, which is threatened by the continuing expansion of Towson's business district.

"That house may not mean anything to other people, but it means something to us," said Bentley, 71, who lives a couple blocks up the road. "By us being residents of East Towson all our lives, we just want some of the stuff that was here to stay here. It is a symbol of our historic neighborhood. It was built by our ancestors more than 100 years ago.

"It should be saved."

Bentley and the Northeast Towson Community Association are trying to raise money to purchase the site from its owner, Josef L. Gehring, who owns other historic properties in town.

Longtime residents of the community have dreams of either turning the log house into a home again or making it a museum.

The Baltimore County Landmarks Preservation Commission will hold a hearing Thursday to discuss whether the structure, known as the Jacob House, is historic enough to warrant preservation.

If that fails, residents have another shot to fight the demolition at a county Board of Appeals hearing June 29.

Despite the support the house is receiving, its future is tenuous at best. Some preservationists fear that the house has suffered too much damage for any attempt at repair.

The back section of the house - the log cabin part of the structure, which is covered in shingles - was built before 1898, according to a Maryland Historical Trust inventory list.

Miller says his great-great-grandmother, Eliza Jane Wilson, a freed slave, built the log house in the mid-1800s when she settled in East Towson. In the early 20th century, her son added a cross-gabled, center hall section that was two stories high.

Fighting extinction

At the time, East Towson was one of a handful of black neighborhoods in the area. Over the years, the other neighborhoods disappeared with development, road construction and urban renewal. East Towson residents have been fighting to make sure they don't become extinct, too.

To lose the Jacob House, residents say, would further the disintegration of their quaint neighborhood with its shotgun shacks and homes with distinctive gabled rooftops and front porches.

"Our problem is that we've had too many developers come in here and buy up all the property and tear it down," said Miller, 52, who has lived near the Jacob House almost all his life. "We just figure if we let this house go, others will go, too, and before you know it, nobody will be here."

Miller said the family lost the house in the early 1980s when his uncle's stepson couldn't pay his debts. In 1984, Gehring bought the house at auction for $21,000 and turned the property into a rental.

Over the years, the value of the land - prime Towson real estate close to county offices, restaurants and other downtown businesses - has more than doubled. When a fire in October 1998 destroyed the front part of the log house, residents said Gehring tried to raze the whole thing the next year.

Residents and attorney Carroll Holzer say Gehring wants to build three townhouses on the property that would copy the architecture of nearby Harris Hill homes.

`It's one big knot'

"The county had ordered that it be torn down. He started to do it and then they told him to stop," said Holzer, who is representing Gehring. "Then the Landmarks Commission was considering it for anhistoric site. It's one big knot. It's been one humongous mess in terms of what to do.

"Our position is, we'd like to tear it down to eliminate the eyesore, but we'd be willing to sell it to the community," Holzer said.

So now that everyone agrees that an effort should be made to save the property, the bigger question is how to save it, Holzer said.

Bentley said the community association has been talking with the county's community conservation office to discuss funding for the purchase. Another alternative would be to explore state funding that might be available for historic properties.

If East Towson residents can't raise enough money to buy the property - its appraised value has not been discussed - Gehring has indicated that he is willing to save the log material so residents can reconstruct the house elsewhere.

That's not an option that interests Bentley or Historic Towson.

"The value of the property is in its original site," said Allen, the president of the preservationist group.

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