Some windows into the past

Sleuth: An architectural historian investigates buildings and ruins that tell the story of an earlier Howard County.

August 19, 2002|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

With a camera slung over each shoulder and poison-ivy lotion on both arms, Alice Reed Morrison is tromping through the yards and woods of Howard County in search of silent history.

She wants to see - and record for posterity - the aged houses, barns and cemeteries concealed in a place that gives the overwhelming first impression of being entirely new.

Nine out of 10 Howard homes were built after 1960, according to census information. As the county's architectural historian, Morrison is trying to visit everything created before 1953.

It's a daunting task because the small percentage translates into several thousand lived-in homes and who-knows-how-many ruins - tucked in overgrown places with biting insects, hazardous plants, rusty nails and hidden holes.

She has learned to be cautious, but that goes only so far. Last month, she fell through an old porch.

"I'm putting on my poison-ivy lotion and my tick repellent and my sunscreen," said Morrison, arriving at a site near the Baltimore County line a week after the accident. "I got a vaccination for Lyme disease and a tetanus shot. This job is dangerous."

Morrison - who earned her doctorate in folk-life studies, with a focus on historic architecture, from Indiana University in 1986 - moved to Howard to take her post in February. Since then, she has visited about 40 sites - mostly places that are about to fall apart or are under development death sentences. "I have to go out, literally, among the bulldozers," she said.

These are not national landmarks. But she believes they're nationally important because they help tell the story of American history. The longer it takes for someone to draw out those tales, the more likely it is they will be lost forever.

"I'm giving a lot of these houses their last rites," Morrison said. "It breaks my heart."

Her reward is discovering hidden clues to a structure's origin. An energetic woman in her 40s who teaches yoga on the side, she is easily excited by bricks, nails and saw marks, all fountains of information for an architecture detective.

On a recent morning, she stopped in Woodstock to see Alice and Mick Bender's 7-acre property, which offers plenty to intrigue her: a quaint 2 1/2 -story house, aged farm buildings and a small 19th-century cemetery.

The Benders don't intend to develop. They've been looking for help dating the buildings. Until Morrison arrived from Indiana, the county couldn't oblige.

"I like old houses and I just wanted to know more about it," said Alice Bender, who has lived there for a quarter-century. "We've been working on it for four, five years at least and kept running into roadblocks."

She knew her house was built before the 20th century because an addition was put on between 1903 and 1908, but deeds could not provide the age of the original section. She had no idea how old the farm ruins are - a bank barn, a foundation of a house, the remnants of a stable, two outbuildings and six mysterious granite rocks she has dubbed "our own Stonehenge."

`I like the door!'

Morrison, 35 mm camera in hand, parked beside the Benders' house and got right to work. "I like the door!" she exclaimed, admiring the stained glass before moving on. "The windows are from the mid- to late 19th century."

"The back of the house, the windows are older," Bender said.

"I tell you what: This is a pleasure," Morrison replied, snapping away.

She walked around the house, looked into the outbuildings in the back - probably a kitchen and a shed, she said - and stopped at the stable to pull out a nail-studded board.

Next, she and Bender trekked through high grass to see Stonehenge.

Pieces of old walls nearby helped Morrison suggest a solution to the mystery: It most likely had been a corncrib or granary, both of which are set on stones to protect crops from rats.

She's not sure why these stones stand about 4 feet tall.

"Usually they're half this height," she said. "They really are strange."

Morrison continued to the edge of the property, crept through a curtain of thorns and exclaimed in delight at the ruins on the other side.

An untrained eye would see a stone foundation with a tangle of weeds where the walls and roof once were. She saw a house. She saw traces of another era.

"Here - see the nails: These are forged nails," she said, pausing and looking into a crevice. "You can see how the bricks are homemade, handmade - they're all rumply, see? ... This puts it before the Civil War."

The remains are difficult to date exactly because they're an example of folk architecture, which stays consistent across generations. People have built this type of two-room "Anglo-American" house since the Middle Ages, she said.

"This kind of ruin really touches me," she said. "I see the settlement era."

`Graveyard' of a farm

Morrison recently moved into a century-old farmhouse in Ellicott City. She doesn't know how long she'll be doing this work in Howard County. Her salary is paid partly by the local government and partly by a Maryland Historical Trust grant. Although the grant can be renewed, there are no guarantees.

But she said she's giving each site the time it deserves. In many cases, she visits more than once.

The Benders' property is on that list - she wants to return in the fall with other historians so they can see what thrilled her.

"This is the graveyard of a farm," she said.

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