Plans emerging for historical complex

Linking buildings, gardens is historical society's vision

May 05, 2002|By Justin Paprocki | Justin Paprocki,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Imagine a Smithsonian-like museum complex among the crowded confines of Westminster's tidy East Main Street, where many brick 19th-century homes have been renovated as shops and offices.

There, amid four neighboring historic buildings -- including the former Cockey's Tavern, a restaurant once well-known in the Baltimore area -- visitors could walk through lush gardens, search dusty volumes for family roots or follow costumed guides through exhibits, perhaps including one about Carroll County's role as a staging area before the Battle of Gettysburg.

"We have this vision that we could be a destination. We're thinking this can be one of the better local, non-big-metro-area historical society complexes in the entire country," said Michael Walsch, chairman of the Historical Society of Carroll County's board of trustees. "It's a neat thing. It's very exciting for the community."

The dream may seem far-fetched for an organization as low-key as the historical society, but it is slowly working its way toward becoming reality. The project is in the early stages, with a Baltimore architect working to create what Walsch and others envision.

The long-nurtured plan of a historical complex took major steps forward in late 2000 when the society bought two structures next to its headquarters: Cockey's Tavern, the center of Westminster life in an earlier century, and the Bond House, a 19th-century structure that was the home and law office of a District Court judge.

With the purchase of those two buildings, the society found the space to realize its goal of expanding its library, public programs, exhibits, collections storage and administrative offices. Its existing facilities are "busting at the seams" in buildings that are about 200 years old, Walsch said.

The addition of those buildings will enhance a visit to the historical society, said the architect, Steve Ziger of Ziger/Snead, whose company has renovated other museums, including the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore.

"There's an incredibly rich history for each of the buildings," he said.

Buildings complement

The buildings complement the society's other two buildings, including its headquarters, the Kimmey House, which was bought in 1966 and serves as the society's administrative offices. The historical society traces its beginnings to its other building, the Shellman House, which was purchased in 1939. The building, created in 1807, had served as a residence.

The society houses anything that tells the history of Carroll County, from portraits to antique furniture to documents. The expanding library has taken over the former exhibit area, pushing displays into the auditorium.

Locally owned toys from the turn of the 20th century are on exhibit, and the crowded conditions also are on display. Visitors snake their way around exhibits that are almost too big for the room.

Once the renovations are complete, exhibit space should be large enough to fit all of the society's features and a lecture hall.

Walsch and the society are looking for ways to connect the structures, probably with sidewalks and gardens behind the buildings. The hope, too, is to create exhibit space similar to what's found at the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of American History, with a variety of exhibits in different rooms.

"You look at the way places like the Smithsonian and Williamsburg blend gardens and how they offer so much inside and outside. ... That's what we'd like to do on a similar plane," Walsch said.

It's not unusual for historical societies to expand to accommodate ballooning records and artifacts, said Karen Gosnell, director of the Maryland Association of History Museums.

"This sort of thing happens as an institution grows and takes on more records," she said.

The Carroll society is fortunate that it can expand into historic buildings next door to its headquarters, she said.

Fund raising

The society's next hurdle is fund raising. The organization is about halfway toward its $2 million fund-raising goal. It plans to conduct a study in the fall to determine how best to raise the final $1 million.

Board members are optimistic the project will come to fruition.

"We believe we have a foundation," said Michael Lane, the former executive director who resigned in April to return to his hometown of Philadelphia. "We feel like we will be able to do this."

The architect is working to finish the design and complete estimates of the renovation costs, and the society hopes to have the project ready for public comment next month.

"I just hope everyone stays tuned to what we have here," Walsch said. "We've got big, big plans."

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