Preservation group gives a `voice' to historic sites

History: Preservation Howard County, a 2-year-old advocacy group, has won some battles and earned respect with its cooperative approach.

October 01, 2002|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

It was a party with all the trappings of an election year - music, food, a speech - but the people paying $35 a head at the grand Belmont estate over the weekend weren't lining the campaign coffers of a politician.

They were celebrating historic preservation.

The success of the event was another sign of preservation's growing strength as an issue in increasingly affluent suburban Howard County. Rescue efforts are reaching beyond Ellicott City into pockets of history across the rapidly developing suburban landscape.

For Preservation Howard County, the 2-year-old group at least partly responsible, the event was a gratifying success.

"Someone has to give a voice to the historic sites," said Fred Dorsey, vice president of Preservation Howard County. "They can't be replaced if they're lost."

The weekend event, which Preservation Howard County put on at an 18th-century mansion in Elkridge that is rarely open for public events, drew more than 130 people.

The group's president, Mary Catherine Cochran, said it was not designed as a major fund-raiser. But it was the latest in a string of well-publicized activities for the fledgling advocacy organization, which was born of community meetings discussing the future of the county.

The group has compiled two "top 10 endangered historic sites" lists, saved from demolition two cabins that appear to have been slave quarters, sent volunteers to hundreds of old properties to check on their condition and helped the county win a state grant to hire an architectural historian.

Members publicly and privately prod government officials and developers, and for that they are not universally beloved.

Michael Conley of Winchester Homes, on whose development the slave quarters sit, does not want to comment on the group.

The county's planning director, Joseph W. Rutter Jr. - though occasionally irritated by the activists' positions - said Preservation Howard County has been effective and generally reasonable. He appreciates that members have negotiated solutions and done legwork that has saved time for his short-staffed department, he said.

"Some of the organizations kind of declare war," Rutter said, "[while] they've taken more of an approach of, `Yes, we're going to keep bugging them until they do what we want, but let's keep working with them.'"

The preservation group's cooperative strategy was on display as it handed out its first Preservationist of the Year awards at Belmont during the weekend event. The prizes went to a dyed-in-the-wool preservationist, a county official and a developer working with a developer's attorney.

"That's how preservation is successful," Cochran said. "One element on its own can only accomplish so much."

Donald R. Reuwer Jr. of Land Design & Development Inc. and attorney Richard B. Talkin, who won for a historic-restoration project, took rotting, "nearly unsalvageable" Dorsey Hall in Columbia and painstakingly brought the early 18th-century home back to life as offices, Cochran said.

Helen P. Voris of Elkridge, who died in June at age 84, was posthumously recognized for individual efforts as a "hands-on, roll-your-sleeves-up preservationist," Cochran said.

Voris helped found Elk Ridge Heritage Society Ltd., wrote a book about the community's history and frequently weeded around a railroad bridge built over the Patapsco River in the 1830s.

Preservation Howard County has sometimes criticized the local government - half of the buildings on the group's endangered list belong to the county - but gave its award for a program initiative to County Executive James N. Robey.

Cochran praised Robey for supporting historic-preservation legislation, including revisions that permit more uses for aged buildings, and finding money for staff members to update the county's inventory of historic places.

"Politically, I think, they're a relatively sophisticated group," said Tyler Gearhart, executive director of 71-year-old Preservation Maryland. "They have relationships with elected officials; they know how to get their issues in front of folks that can make a difference."

Of about 15 countywide preservation groups in the state, Preservation Howard County is the newest and one of the most active, he said.

"They certainly are a needed organization," said Joetta Cramm, a local historian dismayed by the large number of old buildings demolished during her lifetime. "I think that Preservation Howard County has a big job ahead of them."

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