A useful restoration

Education: Advocates say the rebuilt Ellicott City Colored School would be a perfect place to teach children about life a century ago.

September 18, 2001|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

With six months of reconstruction about to begin on the old Ellicott City Colored School, public officials and advocates have begun to focus on how to use the 19th-century wooden building - a relic of racial segregation.

During a visit yesterday to the site, on a sharp Main Street slope at the foot of Rogers Avenue, Howard County Executive James N. Robey and Republican state Sen. Christopher J. McCabe spoke with contractors and project advocates about the future once renovation is completed in the spring.

"We're going to take what we have here and make it a showplace," Robey said during the hourlong discussion and tour.

Sylvia Cooke Martin, who spearheaded the project for the sponsoring African American Historical and Genealogical Society, said her group has a long list of plans to weave the building and its history into the fabric of Howard County life.

"I get so excited," said Cooke Martin, recounting plans for elementary school children to spend one day a year writing with chalk on slates, pondering inkwells and playing century-old games at recess.

"We want to tell them how lucky they are," she said, while teaching them how life used to be.

The society is working on a videotaped oral history project with former students and teachers at the school, which officials estimate was built in the late 1880s. The videos could be part of a lending library. Speakers would come, the society would meet there and the school could be part of Ellicott City's growing list of historic sites - especially for African-Americans.

Cooke Martin said a summer Heritage Camp also could help children learn about contributions of groups such as the Quakers and early African-American county residents.

The county awarded a contract for $319,357 to Albrecht Construction Corp. of Woodbine for the project, said Ken Alban Jr., capital budget expert for the county's Department of Recreation and Parks.

A $1.4 million project

The entire job - from rebuilding the hillside on which the school sits to replacing the bridge that would carry vehicles to parking below - will cost $1.4 million, Alban said. The building reconstruction should be finished in 120 working days and done without dismantling the entire building, he said. The parking lot is scheduled to be completed and the building opened next September.

But nothing on this 11-year-old project has happened on schedule, and contractor Mike Albrecht said many difficult problems have to be worked out.

It will be difficult to distinguish original foundation stones and siding, which must be preserved, from replacements; a stone foundation wall must be constructed around the building; and the roof must be removed and replaced with a steeper pitch to match original construction.

"It's taken a lot longer than we would have liked," McCabe said.

Now, the old exterior siding is bowed and cheap modern paneling covers the interior walls. Several layers of flooring must be removed and evaluated, and the old foundation is mostly in ruins.

Alban said the work will be painstaking - to preserve and display as much of what is original as possible. The building closed as a school in 1953, but it was used as a church after that. An old upright piano stands in the dark interior.

Stabilized in 1998

The county spent $40,000 to stabilize the building in 1998, and a tarp is stretched over one end to help keep out rain. Alban said that erosion had crept to within 10 feet of the building before the county acted to stop it.

Mary Catherine Cochran, president of Preservation Howard County, said that simple, if fragile, historic buildings are easier to restore than large, complex ones, and they might be more valuable.

"It's these little buildings that give us a perspective on who most of our ancestors were. If you can take a child through that [school], you can say, `This is how your great-grandfather went to school.' To them it's a huge benefit," she said.

The building was heated by an old-fashioned coal stove, and students brought water from a well and used outdoor privies.

Howard County's schools were not fully integrated until 1965. In addition to segregation's cruelty, Cochran said, it is hard for a student in 2001, used to computer-equipped, air-conditioned buildings, to conceive of 19th-century learning.

"I want to see a pot-bellied stove in here," Robey said.

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