A wreck or a relic?

Towson: Extraordinary effort necessary to save vestige of a century-old black neighborhood.

June 09, 2000

THE HOUSE tucked away at 437 E. Pennsylvania Ave. in Towson may be historic -- but right now it is an eyesore. To transform this charred hulk into a museum celebrating the African-American presence in Towson will take an extraordinary effort.

The Jacob House, as it is known in the neighborhood, is falling down. A fire two years ago destroyed half the house. The upper floor has slid into the first, which is open to the elements. The logs used to build the original cabin are covered with peeling asbestos siding.

The county's Landmark Preservation Commission held a hearing yesterday to help determine whether the Jacob House deserves historic designation. The original house, built of logs, was constructed in the early 1880s by Eliza Jane Wilson, a freed slave. Her son added a two-story, cross-gabled section in the early 20th century.

Over time, the enclave of black-owned homes in the area has been boxed in by development. On the east is Black and Decker's corporate headquarters, to the north are high-rise office buildings and apartments. Next door to the Jacob House is an 18-unit townhouse development called Harris Hills.

Josef F. Gehring, current owner of the Jacob House, wants to raze the burnt shell and build a three-house subdivision. His demolition request is to be heard by the Board of Appeals on June 29.

Mr. Gehring is willing to sell the property to the community or donate the logs from the original house so it could be reconstructed elsewhere.

Under any circumstance, the money needed to rehabilitate the Jacob House is beyond the means of the small community. If this house is to be saved and converted into a museum, the money must come from the government or private interests.

At present, the prospects don't look good. This quaint house with interesting history is likely to join the long list of other Baltimore County buildings that have disappeared from the landscape.

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