Creative deal saves Howard Victorian from demolition

Creative deal saves Howard Victorian from demolition

After auction fails, operation to preserve old home in pieces Victorian home will be saved in pieces

March 25, 2001|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

Things didn't work out the way they were supposed to, but a Victorian house in Clarksville on the verge of being demolished to make room for a gas station will have a new home after all - maybe new homes.

BP Amoco, which is building a gas station at Routes 108 and 32, was planning to auction the house yesterday morning. The highest bidder would get to cart the handsome 110-year-old three-story house to a new lot, and proceeds would go to Preservation Howard County, the group that set out to save it from destruction.

It was a creative solution that would help all sides. BP Amoco would be saved the cost of demolition and would get some good publicity, and a lucky new owner would have a grand old house for less than a similar home would cost in a traditional sale.

But in the unpredictable world of Howard County real estate, things can change very quickly, and this was no exception.

Although several hundred people had expressed interest in the house during the past few months, when it came time to bid, no one was able to pull it all together in time: the money to move the house, the energy and money to renovate it and, most important, the land to move it to. The closer a lot was to Clarksville, the cheaper it would be to move the house. But finding land in one of the county's hottest areas proved impossible for those hoping to make the rescue.

Things looked bleak - but not for long. Among the two dozen people who turned out to watch the auction yesterday was Mark S. Foster, who recently launched a Baltimore-based operation called Second Chance, which disassembles old houses, trucks them to a warehouse and resells their nicest features to homebuilders.

When Foster heard about the Victorian, he sensed an opportunity. If BP Amoco couldn't find anyone to take the house whole, he said, he would dismantle it piece by piece.

That way, someone could pay later to have the house reassembled somewhere else, without having to pay for an expensive truck-bed move. Or Foster could find new homes for the most notable parts of the home - the walnut banister, the floor-to-ceiling front windows, the wide-plank pine floors.

"If someone wants to have it taken down and reconstructed, it's very easy to do," Foster said. "Structurally, it's in great shape. It has a lot going for it. They don't build them like this anymore - the workmanship, these materials."

As soon as BP Amoco officials saw that no one was prepared to save the house whole, they huddled with Foster and auctioneers from Alex Cooper Auctioneers Inc., who had come to conduct the sale. A deal emerged: Foster would get the house free and BP Amoco would make a $5,000 donation to Preservation Howard County.

Mary Catherine Cochran, president of Preservation Howard County, played real estate agent, giving a tour of the house, which most recently served as a dentist's office, to those who had turned out to watch the auction. She pointed out the two fireplaces, the dirt cellar, the transoms over the doors, the one loose plank upstairs. ("There's a pot of gold under there, I'm sure," she said).

Those on the tour couldn't help daydreaming about the house, even though they weren't there to bid. Tania Culotta of Ellicott City thought one of the smaller bedrooms would make a great walk-in closet. Another woman thought the large, low-ceilinged third-floor room with a slanted door would make a perfect playroom.

Looking out the windows at Route 108, lined with gas stations and a car dealership, the women couldn't believe that the road was, as Cochran told them, once a two-lane carriage track lined with Victorian homes.

Out on the broad front porch, the BP Amoco officials were thinking about the gas station to come, which will include a solar canopy that will help power the station and Internet access for customers.

"We'll be going from a classic Victorian to a state-of-the-art facility for consumers," said Jeff Folks, BP Amoco's Mid-Atlantic director of public, government and media affairs.

Cochran emerged from the house and asked the BP Amoco officials if a few holly trees at the edge of the property could be saved. As the officials locked up the house for the day, she decided that things had turned out about as well as could have been hoped. "It's sad the whole house isn't going to be saved, but at least it will be reused, and won't sit in a landfill," she said. "This corner just isn't made for a Victorian house anymore."

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