For Towson finance firm, a piece of local history

House: A 1789 building has survived floods and relocation to a safer site.

Ellicott City

March 15, 2004|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,SUN STAFF

One of the oldest surviving buildings in Ellicott City is passing into new hands.

Academy Financial, a Towson-based financial planning firm, will soon move into the George Ellicott House, built in 1789 by a son of one of the founders of the town then known as Ellicott Mills.

"It's such a beautiful historical building," said Michael Ward, a partner in the firm. "They're not making any more of them. They're one of a kind."

The three-story stone house, one of many that once lined the banks of the Patapsco River in what is now Baltimore County, is remarkable in part because it exists at all.

Another stone home built next door for George Ellicott's brother, Jonathan, was destroyed by flooding from Tropical Storm Agnes in 1972. A subsequent storm in 1975 left the George Ellicott House in ruins.

"The floodwaters collapsed a corner of the building," said Charles L. Wagandt, an Oella Co. developer who has worked in historic preservation for years.

In 1987, Historic Ellicott City Inc. secured more than $1 million in funds, loans and partnerships to move the house, on rollers, out of the floodplain to donated land on the other side of Frederick Road.

"It could have just crumbled right then," said local historian Joetta M. Cramm, who watched the relocation. "It inched -- it never moved faster than a snail."

Wagandt said the house -- with its many fireplaces, thick walls and original staircase -- is an important example of the architecture of the time and a reminder of the people who once inhabited it. George and Jonathan Ellicott ran the mills that their father and uncle established in the early 1770s, Cramm said.

George Ellicott entertained American Indian leaders in his home and studied astronomy, spending summer nights giving lectures on the stars, Cramm said. He also befriended Benjamin Banneker, a free black man noted for his role in surveying Washington. All the Ellicotts were surveyors, and Banneker taught himself using materials that George Ellicott provided, Cramm said.

"He loaned Benjamin Banneker the instruments by which Banneker unlocked his own genius," said Wagandt.

He said the group hoped to use the property as a historic interpretative center. But lacking the financing for such an endeavor, members sought commercial tenants in 1991, the height of the real estate depression, Wagandt said.

"There wasn't anybody to rent to in those days," he said.

Historic Ellicott City missed loan payments, and the state took possession of the house, ultimately auctioning it. Pat McCullough purchased the building in 1993 for $415,000 and moved OccuHealth Inc., her health care and environmental management business, there.

She has personal ties to the building. McCullough said her great-grandfather, John Oliver Murphy, worked as foreman in the mill and was allowed to live in the house as a perk. He raised his family in the house, including her grandmother, Eleanor Murphy McCullough.

Pat McCullough said her father remembers running through the house as a toddler. "Each one of those rooms in that house has a special story to it," she said. But last year, she put the house on the market and relocated her business to Versailles, Ky., where she moved four years ago.

Now Ward and his partner, Harry Horn, with a silent investor, expect to close on the building in the next few weeks and move in by May.

Academy, a group of comprehensive fee-based financial planners and asset managers, is likely to use half the roughly 5,700 square feet of space as a satellite office and lease the rest, Ward said.

The move will allow Ward, who lives in Ellicott City, to serve the firm's many clients in the Howard County area, he said.

Ward said he is looking forward to taking his clients to lunch or dinner meetings at Main Street's restaurants.

After traveling to the offices from other parts of the state, "they can enjoy the rest of the day in old Ellicott City," he said.

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