Dark village awaits fate

Proposal: Maryland hopes to rescue an enclave of 16 houses near Conowingo Dam before their owner, an electric company, orders them demolished.

January 13, 2001|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,SUN STAFF

The fate of a tiny village of vintage homes hugging the Susquehanna River rests in the hands of a Pennsylvania utility company, which is weighing whether to donate the Harford County community to the state or tear it down.

The 15-acre enclave, called Conowingo Village, is owned by Exelon Generation of Kennett Square, Pa. The 16 single-family and duplex homes, built in 1928, once housed Conowingo Dam executives and workers.

If Exelon decides not to give the property to the state, the homes are scheduled to be leveled, obliterating a slice of Harford history.

Exelon, which oversees the dam through a subsidiary, Susquehanna Electric Co., no longer wants to serve as landlord, said Ben Armstrong, an Exelon spokesman. He said the homes, off Shuresville Road and U.S. 1 in northeast Harford, are in poor condition and not worth restoring.

Maryland officials, however, envision a refurbished site that could be used to shelter the homeless or as a drug rehabilitation center. They sent a letter to Exelon last week asking that the property be turned over to the state.

"We'll see what's best, not only for the company, but for the community as well," Armstrong said of the proposal.

State Sen. J. Robert Hooper, a Harford Republican, has been instrumental in getting the state involved. He isn't sure which state agency would handle the property.

"Somebody is going to take it. It has extreme possibilities," he said. "At this point, we're still in limbo."

The transfer to the state also would hinge on the land's being free of toxic chemicals, Hooper said.

He said state representatives who visited the property described the homes as sturdy, although they need repairs.

Tenants received notices last summer to vacate the houses by Oct. 31. Since being abandoned, the English Tudor-style homes - which, in better days, could have been transplanted to Roland Park or Mount Washington in Baltimore - have been vandalized and bear scars inflicted by the county's Special Response Team practicing forced entries. Without heat, the homes also have suffered damage from frozen water pipes.

Exelon planned to destroy the houses in an organized burn by a local fire company in November and to transform the property, which also includes a ball field, into open space.

But, as residents in nearby Darlington and Dublin learned of the village's plight, they rallied to save the neighborhood.

"Why get rid of the houses so quick?" asked Adam Daneker of Darlington. "What's the goal [of Exelon] in the future?"

Neighbors held a town meeting and began circulating petitions. They also got local representatives involved.

"In Harford County, this is a significant little piece of architecture," said Jane Howe of Darlington. "I got angry about the waste. Then I got a little bit suspicious. It seems like there was a rush to burn these houses."

Community members became aware of the homes' amenities - including wood balustrades, glass doorknobs, stone fireplaces and hardwood floors - while trying to rescue dozens of cats left behind after the renters vacated the premises.

"We had permission [from Exelon] to look for the animals," Howe said. "I went through a house. I was totally shocked. We were led to believe they weren't fit for human habitation."

In the village's heyday, Conowingo executives lived in the stucco and brick homes along a circular roadway, while other employees lived nearby. As workers retired and moved away in the late 1980s, the homes, some with water views and homey green shutters, were rented to tenants not affiliated with the utility.

The neighborhood was part of a larger village that provided temporary lodging to almost 4,000 workers, who started building the dam in 1926. When the dam opened on March 1, 1928, it was one of the largest hydroelectric plants in the nation.

Some area residents are hoping the houses will be fixed up and sold to private owners.

"I'd like to see them restored," said Frank Hopkins of Darlington, who rented one of the houses until three years ago. "There are some beautiful homes there."

But he does not think former drug users should be housed there.

"I would hate to see it, the riffraff," Hopkins said. "Darlington is a sleepy town. Let's leave it that way."

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