Howard's `Top Ten' list

Preservation: Youthful Columbia Exhibit Center should be carded at the door of historic listing process.

May 19, 2001

GIVE Preservation Howard County credit for compiling a "Top Ten Endangered Sites" list. Its systematic process for identifying and possibly rescuing historic sites might avoid fiascoes that jurisdictions such as Baltimore County have experienced over precious sites worth saving.

The Howard list includes Blandair, a 17-room mansion whose former owner refused to buckle to the Columbia juggernaut, even as the new town emerged around the building and its 300 acres.

Also placed in the endangered category are the Guilford Pratt Truss Bridge, built a century ago to carry B&O Railroad trains, and the Woodlawn slave quarters, a small, poorly maintained 1840 stone building at the Ellicott City-Columbia border.

It would be hard to argue against putting such historic structures on the preservation list.

That's not the case with one of the top-10 selections: the Columbia Exhibit Center.

Oddly, the preservationists think a building celebrating its 34th birthday deserves historic protection. That notion is laughable. It threatens to make a joke of Preservation Howard County's otherwise far-sighted idea.

The Exhibit Center, at the edge of Lake Kittamaqundi, has important contemporary significance. It was designed by Frank Gehry, now a world-famous architect. Columbia's opening in 1967 drew international attention and more than 100,000 visitors to the center.

The group says the building symbolizes Howard County's transformation from agricultural to urban. Members fear it will fall victim to urban redevelopment.

But while the center may be important, it's not necessarily his-

toric. You can't seriously mention the Exhibit Center in the same breath as the William Paca House in Annapolis or the 18th-century Georgian brick home of Owings Mills founder Samuel Owings - a house recklessly demolished in 1996 in Baltimore County.

Preservationists sometimes place too much importance on a building's age and believe that every old structure, no matter how insignificant, is worth saving. But endurance isn't the only factor for determining historic importance.

The preservation group needs to amend its Top 10 list, perhaps placing the Exhibit Center on a secondary roster of significant buildings. Then the group would be able to make much stronger arguments for saving Howard County's truly historic sites.

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