New lease on life for piece of history

Restoration: Westminster residents say a capital project will vindicate their refusal to give up on the 135-year-old stone building in the heart of their downtown.

June 26, 2001|By Maria Blackburn | Maria Blackburn,SUN STAFF

The gray stone building in the heart of downtown Westminster is solid, not pretty. It is a simple two-story structure whose boarded-up windows and rotting mortar for years made it look as if it had been forgotten, as if it were awaiting demolition.

The 135-year-old former foundry on the site that once housed Farmers Supply Co. might have been torn down and transformed into a convenience store by now, or a McDonald's or any of the other structures that typically emerge when a little town blossoms into a bedroom community.

The city of Westminster didn't want that to happen.

After years of uncertainty and canceled projects, controversy and dashed hopes, the building that has been called both the city's "crown jewel" and an "eyesore" is in the midst of a transformation.

Construction is expected to begin soon on a four-story, 26,000-square-foot office, retail and residential complex that will include $190,000 two-bedroom condominiums. It will be built on the vacant lot next to the stone building, the first new housing downtown in decades.

The stone building is in the final stages of a $221,000 exterior face lift, including a repainted facade and a new slate roof, and the owner hopes to find a tenant soon.

"When [the stone] building is finished, it's going to be beautiful," said Jacob M. Yingling, board president of Westminster Town Center Corp., a nonprofit group with the responsibility of implementing some of Westminster's revitalization efforts and the stone building's owner. "Nobody will be able to call it an eyesore. We're going to be glad we saved it."

It is the kind of story that has become familiar as communities have struggled to strike a balance between history and progress in their historic downtowns. The question is how to save a building so old that it might not be worth saving. It's a feat that takes not only commitment, but also patience.

For many in Westminster, the structure is more than a building. "It's a symbol for the city," said John F. Marsh, 77, of Westminster. "I'm real tickled they decided to preserve it. It wouldn't be the same if we had a gas station or a bank there."

Constructed in the style of a German farmhouse, the rectangular stone building is so much a part of the city's streetscape that it has never needed a name. Visible from the intersection of Route 27 and Main Street, it is unlike any other structure in Westminster.

Where the Albion Hotel on Main Street -- now apartments with a bagel store on the first floor -- has Queen Anne turrets and fretwork and the nearby Babylon Building -- which houses a bicycle shop and apartments -- boasts the soaring arches and swags of the Beaux-Arts period, the stone building is plain and simple.

The walls are 18 inches of solid stone. The rock, which has a metallic green sheen, was probably quarried locally, although it is uncertain where, said Kevin W. Keeney, vice president of GRC General Contractor, the Westminster company managing the exterior renovations.

The 4,000-square-foot building's only embellishments are a brick cornice and a small cupola and brick chimney on its gable roof.

"One of the reason this building has so much presence is that it's really visibly solid," Dean R. Camlin said, gazing at the building's formidable stone quoins. Camlin is the Westminster architect designing the new complex, tentatively called Westminster Square, next to the stone building. "People just don't build like this anymore."

City officials, community leaders and a 1994 report by consultants HyettPalma labeled the Farmers Supply property a key to the future of downtown Westminster.

Set in the city's former industrial core and surrounded by a county that has retained its rural nature, the stone building had but one purpose -- to help support the agricultural commerce of the community.

The stone building was constructed in 1866 as the foundry for Wagoner and Matthews, a farm implement manufacturer.

From 1870 to 1917, the Liberty Street building was owned by B.F. Shriver Co., a Carroll business that canned peaches, gooseberries, corn, tomatoes and other locally grown produce under the Blue Ridge A No. 1 Grade label.

The building and the acre that it stands on were then sold to Farmers Supply, a locally owned business that sold chains for tractor wheels, McCormick Deering milkers, Farmall tractors and other agricultural supplies.

In 1947, when Farmers Supply built on the lot a glass-and-steel modular showroom designed by noted industrial designer Raymond Loewy, it rented the stone building to a variety of users.

Over the years it was a barbershop and antique store, and a locale for Saturday night dances and municipal band rehearsals.

From the 1950s to the late 1980s. it was the home of B's Restaurant, an unassuming breakfast-and-lunch place that served cups of coffee for a quarter and $2 platters of Hahn's sausage and eggs.

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