Save historic Baltimore County farmhouse from demolition

Metro Journal

April 30, 2003|By Joseph M. Coale

THE CIRCA 1740 farmhouse built by Solomon Bowen that stands on the bluff overlooking the intersection of Charles Street and Towsontown Boulevard was placed on the Baltimore County Preliminary Landmarks list Dec. 17. The vote was unanimous.

The recommendation went to the county executive to be included in a bill (with several other properties) for submission to the County Council. But, in some mysterious process, the Bowen House was excluded from the bill. Even more suspicious, the bill is miscoded on the County Council Web site so that when one searches for it and keys in the correct number a different bill appears. How odd.

The Baltimore County Council is to vote on the bill Monday minus the Bowen House. That, in effect, would make it an unprotected property.

The Greater Baltimore Medical Center, which owns the farmhouse, would like to demolish the structure, since it represents an inconvenience and potential cost to restore. The house has been largely ignored for the 40 years GBMC has occupied the site.

Used for the volunteer Nearly New Sale for years, the structure is attached to a maintenance shed and used for storage. It's a classic example of "demolition by neglect" - letting an old building go to seed and then using that as an excuse to demolish it. It is generally accepted in professional preservation practice that demolition by neglect is not a justifiable excuse for demolishing a recognized historic property.

A precedent-setting 1978 Supreme Court case, Penn Central vs. New York City, held, in effect, that property owners have an obligation to make every possible effort to develop a suitable use for a recognized historic asset before it can be demolished. GBMC should take counsel from our highest court.

The house doesn't fit in with GBMC's plans for continued expansion. That's unfortunate, because with a little imagination and money the structure could serve as an asset and play a prestigious role in the hospital's mission.

A few suggestions have been offered, such as a headquarters for the volunteer staff, a guest house for visiting consultants or interns, a development office and/or an entertainment resource. The hospital should capitalize on this as an asset and look for reasons to save the building, not destroy it.

The Bowen House was built as a frontier, first-settlement-generation vernacular structure in the extreme northeast corner of a 500-acre land grant Samuel's Hope laid out in 1694. It was a perfectly rectangular piece of land reaching south to what's now Bellona Avenue and Charles Street, west to the Jones Falls and north to the St. John's African Methodist Episcopal Chapel at Dunlora Road and Bellona Avenue. A lot of local history happened here and we are fortunate to have this humble, innocent cottage survive, older than the republic itself.

A house of this age is extremely rare for Baltimore County. Very few houses were built so early, and even fewer still exist because they have not had the sponsorship or grandeur of the great houses such as Hampton or Homewood. Yet they are even more important to understanding our history and culture because most of us can trace some portion of our ancestry to this modest type of beginning.

At the northwestern corner of Samuel's Hope, another 1700s home, built by Thomas Carr and later sold to Solomon Bowen (1736), has enjoyed a more positive fate. It has been in private hands and owned by people who saw the value and richness in preservation. Now under the stewardship of a young family, it is in the Land Preservation Trust and listed on the county landmarks list.

With a campaign under way at GBMC that will raise $42 million, the hospital should provide the opportunity to its many prominent benefactors to contribute to the restoration of the Bowen site and return it to productive use. Baltimore County and GBMC should not be so cavalier or insensitive about the destruction of historic resources that pre-date the American Revolution.

Let's hope the County Council shows the insight, courage and leadership to do so, an opportunity lost by our new county executive, James T. Smith Jr.

Today's writer

Joseph M. Coale is a trustee of the Maryland Historical Trust, a local historian and the author of Middling Planters of Ruxton, Maryland 1694-1850 (Maryland Historical Society, 1996.)

Metro Journal provides a forum for examining issues and events in the Baltimore region and welcomes contributions from readers.

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