Cabins might have housed slaves

Structures in Howard are threatened by development plans

April 08, 2001|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

The two cabins squat in the shadow of the big manor house at Mount Joy Farm, like shy children hanging back in their mother's skirts.

In truth, the cabins face a threat: Plans for a 477-unit development on 76 acres of the Ellicott City farm squeezed between U.S. 29, Route 100 and Route 108 call for the possible demolition of both buildings, at least one of which is believed to be a former slave quarters.

Winchester Homes, which bought the property from farmer M. L. Dawson Lee last fall, proposes to keep the main farmhouse but isn't sure it can spare the room taken up by the two cabins - estimated to be at least 170 years old.

That could change, if local preservationists have any say in the matter. Preservation Howard County hopes to persuade the developer and county officials to incorporate the cabins into plans for the subdivision, which will include townhouses, apartments and single-family homes.

Preservationists emphasize that their request is relatively small. They have given up hope of saving several rare old barns and other outbuildings on the property, they point out, in recognition of the developer's right to do what he pleases with the land.

All they want to save, they argue, are the two tiny cabins. The one made of stone, they say, was clearly a slave quarters, with a summer kitchen on the ground floor and a separate staircase that slaves would have climbed to the loft upstairs. The wood cabin directly beside it has a log-cabin foundation, was possibly the original homestead on the farm and was likely the home of either slaves or laborers, preservationists say.

"We're asking for something that's really reasonable, that's the right thing to do and that's feasible," said Preservation Howard County President Mary Catherine Cochran. "It's so early in the process, it won't cost them anything to revise their plans. We're just asking for this one thing."

The request to retain the two cabins is tied up in the intricacies of Howard County zoning rules. Under Winchester Homes' designs, the cabins could not be saved because they fall outside the lot set aside for the farmhouse, which is to be closely surrounded by roads and townhouses.

To keep the cabins, the developer could request a variance from either the county Planning and Zoning Department or the Board of Appeals, which would require hearings separate from the approval process for the development. Or the developer could redraw the blueprints to slightly push back the roads and townhouses near the farmhouse to make room for the cabins.

Michael Conley, development manager for Winchester Homes, said his company is considering applying for a variance to allow it to keep the stone building but not the wood cabin beside it.

"We'd like to retain the slave quarters," he said. "There's some history there that's worth preserving. We're amenable to working with the wishes of the county and Preservation Howard County, to the extent we can."

According to county historian Joetta Cramm, the main house, a two-story stucco building, was probably built soon after 1810 by a doctor, Arthur Pue. During the late 19th century, it was home to Samuel Wethered Jr., a one-time friend of Kit Carson's nicknamed "Santa Fe Sam," who was said to spend his time in the house shooting at a portrait that irritated him.

With Lee, 82, in a nursing home, the house is vacant and sagging. Several old cars sit nearby, alongside antique farm equipment, a dog cemetery and a deer carcass. Vultures swoop over the barns, one of which is built with pegs attaching the beams - a rare feature. While Cochran knows the barns will be removed, she hopes Winchester Homes will donate or sell some of their finer pieces - the ornate cupola-like vents, the still-solid beams.

Under Winchester Homes' plans, the main house, which will remain in Lee's hands as long as he lives, will be renovated and serve as the focal point of the development, a historic relic welcoming residents as they enter by Executive Park Drive. Cochran argues that keeping both outbuildings would enhance that effect and could be done without sacrificing any of the planned housing units.

"This can be a landmark. When people say they live in the `Mount Joy development,' they can know what it was," she said. "The house itself is an empty story. It is the setting of the house and the supporting structures that adds color and detail. History isn't just about how the rich white folks lived - it's also about how the laborers, servants and enslaved lived."

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