Spinning discord

Editorial Notebook

November 29, 2003|By Antero Pietila

OELLA SURE has come a long way. Twenty years ago, the 19th century mill town across the river from Ellicott City didn't even have indoor plumbing or tap water; recently, a home there sold for $718,000.

"There is a certain amount of psychic pleasure in doing this stuff," says Charles L. Wagandt, 78, who bought the time-capsule hamlet 30 years ago and preserved its ambiance through a mix of historic restoration and new construction.

Sure, he did it for money. But he was also motivated by sentimental reasons. As a great-grandson of William J. Dickey, who ran a textile empire along the Patapsco River in the 1880s, he felt a sense of obligation toward veteran employees of the company that went out of business in 1972. Even today, more than a dozen old-timers continue renting heavily discounted apartments from him.

Oella -- which was named for the first woman to spin cotton in America -- is a step back into another time and place. Its winding main street is lined with brick rowhouses that could be from Ireland or Wales; its craggy hills resemble the hollows of Appalachia. "Nowhere in Maryland is there such a remarkable example of fine mill village architecture so picturesquely situated and continuously occupied since before the War of 1812," Mr. Wagandt once wrote.

It's no wonder that his 109 renovated houses, plus a similar number of new constructions, were eagerly gobbled up by families in love with history and natural beauty. People like Henry Berger, a 33-year-old architect, who bought a 200-year-old stone house from Mr. Wagandt seven years ago.

"We used to get along just great," Mr. Berger remembers. "But his vision of growth and mine are a bit different."

The two are now on opposite sides in a bitter, protracted fight over the future of Oella's centerpiece, an underused former mill building, erected after a century-old stone mill burned to the ground in 1918. Over the years, its functional lines have been mangled; the right hands, though, could return it to a handsome period piece.

Mr. Wagandt, who has no ownership interest, wants a Cleveland developer known for historic salvage jobs to turn it into 175 upscale apartments. Mr. Berger, worried about congestion, would like it to continue as a mixed-use building of art studios, antique shops and light industry.

This squabble has been going on for years, pitting Oella residents against one another. Baltimore County zoning authorities repeatedly approved the apartment plan but were overturned by a Circuit Court judge. Councilman Stephen G. Samuel Moxley now wants to legislatively circumvent the judge and put the apartment project back on track.

What's remarkable is that when a similar conversion was first proposed in 1988, residents welcomed it with unanimous enthusiasm. But that was before Oella restoration was in full swing and before real estate prices in the Ellicott City zip code escalated beyond belief. More recently, the building boom has spread to the area between Oella and Catonsville, where several pricey infill developments are under construction.

Though he favors apartments, Mr. Wagandt understands how his opponents feel about Oella. "They like it just the way they found it," he said.

Mr. Wagandt estimates he is three years away from completing the restoration of his properties in Oella, including an old hotel and community building. It worries him that some newcomers are suggesting that straightening the narrow access road from Ellicott City is more important than saving the historic buildings. "It's like what they used to say in the Marine Corps, `I'm aboard now, pull up the ladder.'"

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