Efforts to preserve 700 selected slices of history

Development: In fast-growing Howard, a few are dedicated to keeping significant bits of the past from being swept away.

March 23, 2003|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The 11-room mansion known as Blandair was already more than 130 years old when Howard County was incorporated on July 4, 1851.

The stately brick home, built in 1714, was named for one-time owner Theodorick Bland, who served as U.S. consul to Brazil in the early 1800s. It was also home to John C. Weems, an 18th-cen- tury congressman.

But by the time the planned community of Columbia grew up around it in the 1960s, it was inhabited only by Elizabeth C. Smith, known as Nancy, an unmarried woman who lived there most of her 82 years.

When Smith died, without a will, in 1997, the 300-acre property was walled in by the streets and subdivisions of Columbia, a pocket of Howard County history amid the hustle and bustle of suburbia.

It was also an incredibly valuable piece of real estate.

And so the battle began over what to do with the deteriorating building and surrounding property. Late in 2001, the county government was granted control, and a committee was appointed to come up with a plan for the property. Those discussions are still taking place.

Blandair is one of about 700 sites that the county has designated as historic. Other properties range from slave quarters to grand mansions and have only one thing in common - they are reminders of a rural past that is fast disappearing.

Many of the county's historic sites are in its two historic districts, downtown Ellicott City and a section of Elkridge called Lawyers Hill.

Parts of the county were first settled by Europeans as far back as the 1600s. By 1750, most of the land east of what is now Route 32 was under ownership, according to historian Joetta Cramm's book, A Pictorial History of Howard County, published in 1987.

Perhaps the oldest home still standing in Howard County is Troy Hill, parts of which might have been built before 1700. The shell of this once-grand brick building can be seen on a hill near the intersection of Route 100 and Interstate 95.

That property is now on county parkland, and the county has made efforts to put a roof on it and stabilize it pending further funds for renovation.

The first commercial development came in what is now Elkridge. Milling became an important industry along the Patapsco River, and opportunity attracted Joseph, Andrew, Nathaniel and John Ellicott. The brothers - minus Nathaniel, who soon went back to Bucks County, Pa. - set up a gristmill in 1774, the first step toward creating the town that would be named for them.

Savage, which also began as a mill town, started out in 1734 with a gristmill. It was named after Jamaica-born John Savage, who created Savage Manufacturing Co. in 1821.

By 1860, the population of Howard County was about 13,300, including 2,862 blacks, according to Cramm's book. There were also 1,395 free blacks.

Many properties from these bygone times, ranging from Savage Mill, now housing retail shops and restaurants, to old schools and churches, still stand. But some are in jeopardy.

As the county's old farmland is sold to developers, the historic properties can stand in the path of development. Recently, slave quarters and a log cabin on an Ellicott City property known as Mount Joy were slated for demolition by developers. Others are suffering from neglect, in part because owners sometimes do not realize the historic value of their property.

The situation became so serious that in June 2000 a nonprofit group called Preservation Howard County was created.

"Our mission is to actively pursue the preservation of the historical and cultural sites in Howard County," said Fred Dorsey, the group's vice president.

`What can be done'

For example, the organization showed a spotlight of publicity on the buildings at Mount Joy and is working with the developer, Winchester Homes, to find ways to preserve the buildings, even if it means moving some of them to another location.

"We're asking the property owners and the developers to consider what can be done to save that, still realizing that property owners and developers have the right to develop," Dorsey said.

Power of persuasion is a critical tool in the struggle to protect historic sites because there aren't many laws on the books to shield these properties. Renovations within the county's historic districts often require approval from the Historic District Commission. But outside of those geographical boundaries, there is little to stop a property owner intent on demolishing a historic site, beyond tax advantages.

"It can be National Register [of Historic Places], it can be state or local, under none of the systems does it give it absolute guarantee of protection," explained Marsha McLaughlin, acting director of the county's Department of Planning and Zoning.

Preservation goal

That said, however, the county has a fairly good track record of preserving historic property and has made such preservation a stated goal.

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