Group includes Lisbon on endangered-sites list

Group tracks threatened buildings

Sites: A preservation organization aims to call attention to the challenges and untapped potential of Howard town.

May 04, 2003|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Lisbon is a town from another time, but its silent history is slowly rotting away.

The two-block "downtown" dates to 1822 - some buildings are even older - but the small community is not aging well, and several of its most notable architectural works sit empty.

A once-grand resort hotel exists in a sort of Catch-22: Its owner can't afford to restore it until a business agrees to move in, but it needs so much work that no business has bit.

A group of activists thinks the best remedy is publicity.

Preservation Howard County has added the town to its annual list of the top 10 endangered historic sites, highlighting Lisbon's challenges and its untapped potential.

Also new to the list is the Elk Ridge Assembly Rooms, which is deeply loved by residents in its historic neighborhood but has deteriorated past their ability to fix.

"We just try to keep it going, because it is such a treasure," said Mary Hofbauer Brown, president of the Lawyers Hill-based association that cares for the assembly hall. "The best possible thing would be if this grand dame [could have] a sugar daddy out there for her."

This is the third year Preservation Howard County has released its list, designed to shed light on beleaguered historical gems in a suburb that looks completely youthful at first glance.

The nonprofit group was founded in 2000 by people alarmed at how many sites were crumbling - or deemed in the way in one of the state's fastest-growing counties of the 20th century - and had been erased from existence.

A few of the sites on the top 10 list are endangered by development, although developers involved are trying to be sensitive to the buildings on their land. But most of the properties are owned by sympathetic residents without tens of thousands of dollars to spare for the necessary work - or by the county government, which often takes years to put together restoration projects.

The threatened buildings represent the range of early life in Howard, and include a one-room schoolhouse, a 23-room mansion, a barn, a chapel and several slave quarters.

That most of the structures are making repeat appearances on the list speaks volumes about the difficulties of historic preservation. It's expensive and time-consuming.

"Progress is slow, particularly for those sites that are owned by the county," said Fred Dorsey, vice president of Preservation Howard County. "Whether it's a good or a bad economic year ... preservation projects just don't seem to get the adequate funding that's required."

But county officials have proved more motivated recently, said the nonprofit's president, Mary Catherine Cochran. That's critical, she said, because dilapidated buildings can wait only so long for attention.

"They don't care if we have bad budget years," Cochran said. "They're going to fall down one way or the other."

In Lisbon, where the aging buildings are in private hands, preservationists think economic development - done right - could be the key to ensuring that the history there has a future.

Peter McIntosh, who owns the empty Lisbon Hotel, certainly thinks so. He has put sweat equity into the sagging building, which is at least 170 years old, but he can't pay for the extensive restoration needed until someone agrees to lease the place.

He said he easily can imagine renovations costing at least $150,000.

People have inquired about the hotel, but they were largely folks with a dream rather than a solid business plan, and they haven't come back, he said.

"It's a good thing to draw attention to the historical properties and the risk that they may disappear," said McIntosh, who lives in a house in Lisbon that's about as old as the hotel.

The fate of two nearly-200- year-old houses in town is up in the air. A Columbia firm applied for permits last year to raze them and build anew, but Lisbon residents protested and Brantly Development Group has spent months trying to find a way to fit the old buildings, the new buildings and the septic system on the 2.4-acre property.

The septic is the problem. Brantly officials have appealed to the Maryland Department of the Environment because the county rejected their proposal for holding tanks.

"We're trying to preserve those houses," said Hugh F. Cole Jr., Brantly's chairman of the board.

Still, his plans to develop the property shocked some residents into action. Stephanie Marple, who moved to the area three years ago, attracted by its small-town quality and longtime residents, has gone door to door to persuade people to preserve Lisbon by forming a historic district with extra regulations.

In Elkridge's Lawyers Hill, residents who see their assembly hall as the glue that holds the neighborhood together are trying their best to hold their hall together. Built in 1871 as a way to soothe tensions after the Civil War, the hall is where neighbors hold plays, dinners and Fourth of July celebrations.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.