New life for a historic site

Revival: Howard County plans to renovate an old home and make it the centerpiece of a 106-acre park.

April 08, 2004|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

The big stone shell of a historic house called Troy Hill keeps a lonely vigil from a wooded perch above traffic on Interstate 95 and Route 100, but the years of abandonment may be coming to an end.

Howard County Executive James N. Robey's capital budget includes money to begin restoring the house, which is on a site that was inhabited by Europeans in the late 17th century.

Visible from the highways only in winter, the stone sentinel is slated to become the centerpiece of a $10.5 million, 106-acre park -- a leafy oasis amid the urban development surrounding it.

Legend has it that Revolutionary War plotters gathered on Col. Thomas Dorsey's Troy Hill homestead. Dorsey, who commanded a battalion of the Elkridge militia, was a great-grandson of John Dorsey, who during the 1600s obtained 652 acres that included Troy Hill. After Thomas Dorsey's death in 1790, his widow sold the land, giving the family's name to the area nearby.

The house was occupied until 1968, and after years of neglect the inside was destroyed by fire set by trespassers in 1991. The building is a shell, stabilized by heavy new wood joists inside and long metal poles outside. Because of the fire damage, only the exterior is classified historic, which means the inside can be restored without as much attention to detail.

"It's a beautiful shell of a building," said Chris McGuigan, chief of the National Park Service's woodworking team that is restoring a historic barn in Rockburn Park in Elkridge. The team also will restore Troy Hill and the Blandair mansion on the old Smith farm in Columbia.

If approved by the Howard County Council, the National Park Service could begin archaeological excavations at the house by fall. Meanwhile, the county government will try to buy out the three homeowners living on property slated for the park and force removal of a private auto wrecking yard next door.

"We are trying to get Troy moving," said Kenneth M. Alban, administrator for capital projects and park planning.

Fritz Rushlow, exhibit specialist with the park service, said he will first work with an architect to create a stabilization plan for the building.

A new entrance road to the area comes from an industrial park next door, but the only access to the old house remains an unpaved former carriage lane that winds through heavy woods to the top of the hill.

Some of the $560,000 in the capital budget request is a local match for state bond money approved for the project nearly a decade ago. If the state money is not used soon, Alban said, officials could reclaim the funds. The rest will be used to buy out the remaining homeowners who want to sell.

Ruth Struck, 88, said she is ready to sell so she can move to an assisted-living home.

"If I had two new knees, I'd be all right," she said, noting that her washer, dryer and freezer are in the basement of her brick cottage. "My daughter and son worry about me falling. I hate to give it up," she said, noting she has lived near the future park for 57 years.

Klaus Nickel and his elderly mother, Emma, are less interested in moving, even though they could be fined if they don't clear the German car parts and auto bodies strewn around their property.

George Beisser, county zoning chief, said the Nickels were served with a zoning violation notice Feb. 9 and were given an extension until this Monday. If the property isn't cleared, the county could issue a civil citation for up to $250 a day in fines.

Emma Nickel has lived on the property since 1957, though the family was forced to sell 3 1/2 acres in 1969 for the Route 100 right of way.

"I hate to sell it. I'm too old to change," she said.

Although the auto yard has been growing for years, the county had not pressured the Nickels before because there were no complaints about the isolated, wooded location. But with work on the park nearing, the county decided to take action.

Klaus Nickel said he is trying to remove the cars, but says it will take a while.

"I'm trying my best to comply with what we have available, but by [Sunday], it's not going to happen," he said.

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