A neighborly approach to site's development

Property: The Weiskittels worked with neighbors when it was time to sell the family homestead in Rodgers Forge, which it owned for more than 75 years.

August 16, 2002|By Maria Blackburn | Maria Blackburn,SUN STAFF

Graying white paint and chain link fence aside, the Italianate-style villa at Bellona Avenue and Stevenson Lane is an island of pastoral refinement in a sea of suburbia.

Built about 1864 as the country estate of a Baltimore baker, the two-story wood-frame house set on about 5 acres has stood on this corner longer than the 1,777 tidy brick townhouses of Rodgers Forge nearby, longer than the stretch of Stevenson Lane that extends to York Road and beyond.

Too plain to be called a mansion, never used as a farm, the house with the square cupola and the gable roof evokes a time when Towson was considered the country, not the suburbs.

S. Ford Weiskittel's family has owned the weathered Victorian for more than 75 years. His uncle Herbert Weiskittel, who bought the house in 1926, outfitted the place with stoves, sinks and bathtubs made by the family's long-defunct ironworks.

His 98-year-old aunt Dorothy Weiskittel, who lives in Towson, remembers seeking refuge from the downtown heat on the cool grass of the home one night during the Depression and being awakened by a neighbor's cow at dawn as it meandered into their field to graze.

Weiskittel, whose father, Francis A. Weiskittel, bought the three-bedroom house at auction for $30,500 in 1948, has fond memories of sleeping in an attic bedroom there, playing in his treehouse, and hopping the fence on his way to and from nearby Rodgers Forge Elementary School, where he entered first grade in 1952.

"It's the whole family history in that house," said Weiskittel, 55, a former classics professor who splits his time between Baltimore and Geneva, N.Y.

Not long after his father died in December 1994 at age 96, Weiskittel, his brother, Anton, and sister, Virginia, realized they didn't want to uproot their lives and move there. But they didn't know what to do with the property. So the family did something unusual in these days of rampant development, skyrocketing housing costs and suburban sprawl: They asked their neighbors what they wanted.

The question led to hundreds of hours of meetings with county planners, neighborhood associations and developers who considered assisted-living facilities or private homes, single-family houses or townhomes, preserving the house or tearing it down. The process has taken seven years, now a developer holds an option to buy the land. James Keelty and Co. Inc of Timonium - builder of Rodgers Forge - has proposed building 42 luxury townhouses on the site.

Three community associations from neighborhoods surrounding the property - Stevenson Mews, Armaugh Village and Rodgers Forge - support the proposal and the way Weiskittel has worked with them.

"We were afraid they would do what most people do and put it up for sale, then somebody would just buy the property and stick anything there, like an ugly apartment building," said Jean Duvall, a Rodgers Forge resident for 32 years who has been involved with the Weiskittel project from the beginning.

Instead, what evolved was a partnership of sorts, one in which all parties wanted to see the land - perhaps the last undeveloped plot in Rodgers Forge - become something everyone could live with.

"It has been a relationship like that of a family trying to work together," Duvall said.

Baltimore County Planning Director Arnold F. Keller III recognizes that finding a new use for the Weiskittel property - which is bordered by townhouses and apartments on two sides and single-family homes and a church on the other two - has been somewhat unconventional. "Ford Weiskittel has developed an unusual affinity for the Rodgers Forge community," Keller said.

Weiskittel won't divulge the terms of the sale. According to state assessment and taxation records, the property is valued at $260,310.

Keelty is in the process of a feasibility study on the property and company Vice President Mark Buda said they hope to begin going through the county approval process in the coming months.

The proposal, which has not been filed with the county, calls for building single-family townhouses with garages on the site, leaving 43,000 square feet of open space at Stevenson Lane and Bellona Avenue.

Three 130-plus-year-old tulip poplars that tower over the house would be saved, as would the granite front step to the house that was preserved from Weiskittel's great-grandfather's house on Smith Avenue. The house, its garage, sheep shed, stable and corncrib would be torn down.

Weiskittel, who directs an archaeological project that researches ancient Greek and Roman ships, had wanted to save the house.

His first plan - which the community also supported - was to build an assisted-living facility on the property and restore the original house for use as offices. But that plan fell through in the late 1990s.

"I really put a lot of effort into saving the house, but as a historian, just saving something doesn't mean anything," he said. "You have to have a use for it."

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