County history decays

A preservation group identifies Howard's 10 most endangered sites

May 08, 2002|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | By Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

The quaint white chapel tucked in a graveyard is hiding its age well. Too well.

The warped shingles on the roof are hard to see. The peeling stucco blends in even better. Unless you wander inside -- where there is no floor and a gaping hole of a cellar -- you would probably assume the building was in fine health.

After 147 years, the Catholic church nearly as old as Howard County is slowly deteriorating as a handful of parishioners try in vain to find a key piece of information about the Clarksville building's original condition so they can restore it accurately.

Preservation Howard County is hoping the bright light of publicity will help.

Group leaders have dubbed the 1855 St. Louis Church one of the county's top 10 endangered historic places to persuade more people to pay attention to it, and to other pieces of Howard heritage threatened by decay, demolition or development.

"We do have quite a wealth of sites in Howard County, and there are some that are in dire need," said Fred Dorsey, the preservation organization's vice president.

The top 10 list, to be released today, highlights buildings -- many sagging -- that explain without words how Howard countians from long ago lived, farmed, worshipped and were educated. In general, it is not bulldozers but a lack of money, manpower or expertise that are the obstacles to their long-term existence.

Seven of the sites are making a repeat appearance on the list, which is in its second year. Among that group are the 18th-century Clover Hill farmhouse in the Rockburn Park Heritage Area, the 19th-century Pfeiffer's Corner School and the 35-year-old Columbia Exhibit Center, a baby as buildings go but one of the first erected in the planned community.

Some owners -- such as the Rouse Co. -- do not want to be on the list. Ellicott City resident Sue Stein is sorry that the 19th-century graveyard she adopted was taken off.

She has had more help since the Dorsey Arcadia Cemetery near U.S. 40 was named one of the top 10 last year, but it is still overgrown and still dotted with dead trees, broken headstones and sunken crypts. "I do what I can, which isn't a whole lot anymore," said Stein, 78.

Besides St. Louis Church, the new arrivals on the list are the Marvin Howard Log Building in Glenwood and Troy, a 19th-century stone house built on a land grant that dates to the late 1600s.

The State Roads Commission bought Troy in 1958 to prepare for construction of Interstate 95, but the house with four chimneys survived and spent the next 10 years as rental property.

After that, however, no one was left to protect it from trespassers and vandals. A fire believed to have been started by people sleeping in the building gutted it in 1991, leaving nothing but the four exterior walls.

"The house just deteriorated terribly," said Joetta Cramm, a local historian frustrated that the building made it more than 150 years in good shape until it lost the care that comes with daily use. "It's had a sad, sad history."

Howard County, which has owned the building since 1971, stabilized it 10 years ago and intends to restore it. Officials have not settled on a use but are planning a recreational park on the 81 acres around Troy.

Preservation Howard County believes the 19th-century log building in Glenwood is one of the few remaining locally that has not been substantially altered. A log cabin on the group's list last year was destroyed by arsonists in September, a few weeks after the county Department of Recreation and Parks began restoring it as a museum.

The privately owned Marvin Howard Log Building has a rough charm, but peeling plaster hangs from between the logs. Cars zoom by on a country road less than 10 feet away.

"I'm afraid someone's going to run into it," said Katherine Cunningham, whose family lives on the property in a nearby 19th-century farmhouse. "It would be nice to move it back farther from the road, but we just can't do it right now."

With four children, three goats and two donkeys to care for, the Cunninghams have neither the time nor the money for a preservation project.

The aged St. Louis Church, on the other hand, has the advantage of its connection with one of the largest congregations in Howard County.

By 1889, parishioners outgrew the little building on Ten Oaks Road and constructed a chapel a half-mile away on what is now Route 108. In 1980, they built the present 625-seat church next door.

The middle building was recently restored and is used for small liturgies, but the original has not had a service in decades -- or much else, for that matter.

Inside, bricks peek through the peeling green paint on the walls. Some of the window panes are broken, the stairway leading to the choir loft is gone and the dirt exposed by the torn-out floor gives the place an earthy scent.

George Kuegler of Columbia who is helping to research St. Louis' history, can see beyond that to intriguing details, such as windows topped by triangles instead of the traditional arches.

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