Owings House project built on a promise

Developer: Five years after tearing down the 18th-century building, Howard Brown is reconstructing it but without the original brick or layout. Many preservationists remain unimpressed.

March 07, 2001|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Five years after unceremoniously bulldozing the Samuel Owings House, developer Howard S. Brown is making good on a promise to reconstruct the 1760s structure nearby, something many Baltimore County preservationists doubted he'd ever do.

Taking shape a few hundred yards toward Reisterstown Road from Samuel Owings' grave is a two-story brick edifice with a long porch and three dormers, all of which the 18th-century businessman would find quite familiar.

If Owings, for whom Owings Mills was named, rose from his grave at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, he would probably recognize his mansion, at least from the front.

But what would he make of the three-car garage on the side? How would Deborah, his wife, react to her walk-in closet?

The Owings children, William, Urath, Samuel, Eleanor, Sarah, Rebecca, Deborah, Frances, Rachel, Mary, Ann and Beal, would probably be floored enough by the indoor plumbing, much less the individual bathrooms for every upstairs bedroom.

The house being built does not use the original brick. Brown said he has the brick, but it's too old to be structurally sound or waterproof. It does not have the original woodwork or fixtures. Its walls will not be plaster, and the home does not entirely follow the original layout.

Those who objected to the demolition generally are not impressed.

"It's really hard to reconstruct when all you have is shards and red dust," said Ruth B. Mascari, chairwoman of the Baltimore County Historical Trust. "It's not a reconstruction. From a preservationist point of view, there's no point in it."

Brown isn't directly profiting from building the house, which is costing about $500,000. He plans to donate the profits from its sale to the Torah Institute, a boys school for advanced Jewish and secular learning.

And although he is a major real estate developer in the county, building a single, custom-made one-family home is not Brown's typical business.

So why bother?

"That was what was asked of me, and that's what I agreed to do," Brown said. "If I didn't do it, then I would renege on what I said. What does it accomplish? I don't know."

Preservationists say the Owings affair cemented their opinions of Brown as an enemy and not the kind of person who would care whether he reneged on a deal to rebuild.

"We didn't trust him," said Vicki L. Almond, who was a member of the Committee to Save the Samuel Owings House. "He has proven to us he can't be trusted."

The Owings affair also complicated his relationship with county officials. Although the way Brown tore down the house was legal, county officials said he found a way around the spirit of the law.

In Baltimore County, consideration of which properties should be deemed historic and thus protected begins with the Landmarks Preservation Commission. The commission reviews properties and forwards its recommendations to the county executive. The executive then forwards those recommendations to the County Council, which has the final say.

In 1995, when Brown was set to demolish the Owings House, the commission forwarded its recommendation to County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger. He held the recommendation for six months while Brown negotiated with T. Bryan McIntire, councilman for the 3rd District, where the Owings House stood.

In February 1996, Ruppersberger and Brown shook hands on a deal to dismantle the house and reconstruct it elsewhere.

But McIntire and Ruppersberger didn't specify what "reconstruction" meant. Nor did they specify when, where or how Brown had to do it.

Ruppersberger's spokeswoman, Elise Armacost, and McIntire said county officials were under the impression then that Brown would use the materials from the original house in the reconstruction.

"In retrospect, I think Dutch would tell you they underestimated the importance of this house to the Owings Mills community and the preservation community," Armacost said. "But at the time, it seemed like a fair thing to do."

Further complicating the issue, it was discovered shortly after the deal was struck that Brown had helped sell $5,500 in tickets for Ruppersberger's campaign fund-raisers, and his company had bought $1,125 in tickets to a McIntire fund-raiser. McIntire and Ruppersberger said at the time that the fund raising presented no conflict of interest.

After the trouble Brown caused them, McIntire and others in the county government said they can't help but like him in some ways. Say what you will about him, McIntire said, but Brown knows construction and builds quality projects.

Arnold Jablon, director of the county's Departments of Permits and Development Management, said he doesn't doubt that Brown would sue him in a second over a matter of business. But Brown is not a man who goes back on his word, Jablon said.

"I love Howard dearly," he said.

On a cold and rainy winter morning, Brown's publicist arranged for him to show off the Owings House with its architect, L. J. Link Jr.

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