Lisbon residents try to save two houses

Some want 1810 buildings, in danger of demolition, as part of historic district

August 22, 2002|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

The future of a 19th-century crossroads town in western Howard County is on the line.

Developers dream of shining new commercial buildings in Lisbon, once a stopover on the pioneers' way west and now a stroll from traffic on Interstate 70. Preservationists imagine its historic structures saved by continued use, a Main Street Ellicott City in miniature.

Suddenly, many in town are thinking about this either-or prospect - shaken into action by an announcement that a pair of nearly 200-year-old houses could be demolished and replaced by construction for a yet-undetermined business.

"This is Lisbon hanging in the balance ... a crossroads at a crossroads," said Mary Catherine Cochran, president of Preservation Howard County, which promotes the survival of historic sites. "It is a vanishing breed."

The "downtown," about two blocks crossed by Routes 94 and 144, dates to 1822.

Lisbon residents, who packed their fire hall last week for a meeting about the proposed development, are organizing to make sure their tiny community does not lose its charm or its claims to history. They are talking about seeking "historic district" status, which would restrict landowners to construction and renovations in keeping with local character.

If Ellicott City is one model, they say, the other side of the coin is Clarksville - a rural crossroads that disappeared in the 1990s in a whirl of fast-food restaurants, gas stations, car dealerships and commuter traffic.

"I think that the eyes are opened in Lisbon," said Stephanie Marple, an applications systems engineer who moved to the area two years ago from Columbia and is willing to coordinate a historic district effort. "Either you get one extreme or the other."

The Howard County Historical Society, which sees itself as an archive and rarely takes positions, voted last week to support a Lisbon historic district.

"That struck a chord," said Philip Stackhouse, the society's recording secretary. "If we have a prejudice, it's seeing the county's history is recorded and preserved."

What will happen to the old buildings that touched off the debate is unclear.

One is a log house formerly used as a parsonage, and the other is a heavy timber frame house that once belonged to Benjamin Barnes, an original trustee of Lisbon's Methodist Church. Both, now unoccupied, are circa 1810, said Alice Reed Morrison, the county's architectural historian.

Brantly Development Group, a Columbia company that wants to develop the 2.4 acres on which these and three newer buildings sit, has applied for permits to raze the two old buildings.

The houses have been given a temporary stay of execution to allow Morrison time to survey them, work she has almost completed.

But Brantly officials said they are considering other options - preservationists are urging them to keep the buildings on the site or at least have them moved - and company Chairman Hugh F. Cole Jr. is expected to tour them with Morrison today.

"They just look like dirty old houses, but when you get inside ... you get a different perspective," Morrison said. "The houses are so important."

Cole could not be reached for comment. His son, Hugh F. Cole III, a vice president, said no decisions have been made, but possibilities include saving key pieces of the houses, on the land or elsewhere.

"If tearing them down is not the best option, we're not going to do that," he said. "We'd like to see those homes put to the best use."

Lisbon sprung to life as a planned community - one that predated Columbia by more than 140 years.

Caleb Pancoast, who built a home in the area in 1804, bought more land 18 years later and laid out streets, alleys and 100 lots of about a quarter-acre each, said historian Barbara W. Feaga, who grew up south of Lisbon.

Even today it's an outpost, a mixed-use island of businesses and homes surrounded by farms and mansions. But in the 19th century, it was a bustling place where pioneers stopped for the night on their way along the National Road, America's first highway to the West.

"All travel west at that time went through Lisbon," Feaga wrote in Howard's Roads to the Past. "By 1835, there were eight stagecoaches stopping in town on a daily schedule."

Many of the original buildings are standing, Feaga said this week.

But Sarah Slagle Fitzgerald, a descendant of Benjamin Barnes who grew up south of Lisbon, said she is dismayed that a fair share of those are in poor repair. She would love to see an Ellicott City-style restoration to bring the houses back to life.

"You can see straight through one," said Fitzgerald, who lives in Southern Maryland. "People haven't been keeping them up."

Peter J. McIntosh, whose family has lived in town since 1970 in a reconditioned house and owns 19th-century commercial property there, remembers discussion about historic district designation at least a decade ago - an idea that died from lack of interest.

He is in favor of it, but not everyone wants the county Historic District Commission overseeing architectural design and building materials.

"Hopefully it's not too late to do something like that," McIntosh said.

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