Racing to rescue history

List: Preservationists are to release today a `Top Ten' of important local structures threatened by decay or development.

May 13, 2001|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Howard County preservationists are deploying a new tool - a listing of the county's most endangered historical sites - in their race to rescue pieces of the county's past before the flood of development washes most remnants away.

The county's first Top Ten Endangered Sites List, released today, shines light on mansions, cabins, slave quarters and other places with futures shadowed either by decay or new construction.

"The big goal is to try to put the brakes on," said Mary Catherine Cochran, president of Preservation Howard County, which considered 50 candidates for the list.

A quarter of the buildings and structures on the county's 1970s inventory of historic places no longer exist, she estimated.

"We can't continue to lose our sites at this alarming rate," she said. "This [list] is a means of letting the public know: We're losing them. We're losing them quickly."

Most of the chosen properties aren't teetering on the edge of extinction. Their owners intend to fix them up. But Preservation Howard County wants to build public support to ensure that the sites are saved from the ravages of time. In some instances, private caretakers need help.

"We're trying to publicize the need for preservation," said Paul Bridge, who headed the committee of local historians that compiled the list. The group hopes residents will suggest other sites for protection as Howard speeds toward 2020, when officials expect all developable land will be used up.

Properties on this year's endangered list have widely varying charms. There's Blandair in Columbia, a 300-acre farm with a deteriorating manor house; Mount Joy in Ellicott City, where slave quarters and outbuildings might fall to a subdivision; the Lisbon Hotel, which was grand when coaches traveled the National Road west but is showing its age; the Dorsey Arcadia Cemetery in Ellicott City, which is so overgrown that neighbors didn't realize it existed; and the Guilford Pratt Truss Bridge, which is rusting away, its days carrying a B&O Railroad spur over the Little Patuxent River long gone.

There's also Pfeiffer's Corner School, which seventh-graders saved from development a dozen years ago but which awaits restoration work; the vine-covered ruins of the Woodlawn slave quarters in Columbia; the Church Road neighborhood in historic Ellicott City, where 15 planned houses could change the view; and the Clover Hill heritage site in Rockburn Park, where a farmhouse, log cabin and barn are rotting.

Then there's a surprise: the Columbia Exhibit Center, which opened in 1967 with the advent of James Rouse's new town. It's not even middle-aged by human standards, but Preservation Howard County thinks the center merits historic status as a symbol of Columbia's transformation of the county.

The building with the distinctive red roof overlooks Lake Kittamaqundi in the heart of the city, where it once offered visitors a first peek at the plans for Columbia. Now it holds offices and two restaurants. Columbia Management Inc., a Rouse Co. affiliate, says it has no immediate plans for change.

But Cochran says preservationists are concerned about the future of the building - designed by Frank Gehry, now a famous architect - because redevelopment of Columbia's core seems inevitable as the final touches are placed on the town's final village.

"We don't want to lose that piece of heritage," said Fred Dorsey, vice president of Preservation Howard County.

The owners of some of the nominated sites think it's a misnomer to call them "endangered." Although the Pfeiffer's Corner School, Guilford Pratt Truss Bridge and Clover Hill buildings are looking sickly, they haven't been abandoned by the Department of Recreation and Parks, which owns them.

"We have plans for them; we have funding for many of them - things are about to happen," said Clara Gouin, a park planner.

But Cochran said that funding has been cut from the recreation department in the past to deal with tight budgets. Pfeiffer's Corner in particular has been waiting a long time to be nursed back to health.

Sue Stein, an Ellicott City resident who cares for the Dorsey Arcadia Cemetery, is thrilled that her project made the list. She has removed dead trees and attacked the undergrowth that took over the old Dorsey family burial grounds, but three years of work has made only a dent.

Weeds grow over the broken headstones of people who died in the 19th century. Poison ivy crawls throughout. Stein, 77, says the work is therapeutic, but she wishes more people would pitch in. Only a few help regularly.

"Oh, it's so much," she said with a sigh. "We haven't even done a quarter of what needs to be done."

Bridge, of Preservation Howard County, doesn't know if the endangered list will save the places it highlights. But he's sure it will draw attention to the challenge.

Elsewhere, such lists have had a powerful effect.

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