Assembly OKs bond sale for mansion restoration

Blandair is centerpiece of 300-acre Howard park

April 14, 2004|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

After years of uncertainty, court battles and financial delays, restoration of the 19th- century Blandair mansion - the centerpiece of a 300-acre park in Columbia - appears set to begin, after General Assembly approval of a state bond issue.

The state capital budget approved late Monday night included $500,000 for the project. County Executive James N. Robey included matching funds in his capital budget proposal, which requires County Council approval.

Del. Frank S. Turner, chairman of the House delegation from Howard, noted that the state contributed $6.7 million toward the $10.7 million purchase of the land a year after the longtime owner, Elizabeth C. "Nancy" Smith, died without a will in 1997.

Developing the park and restoring the house are "very important" given that investment, Turner said, "instead of having 1,500 homes over there." A legal battle over ownership was resolved in October 2001.

But more than just the land is at stake.

"We've taken the position that history is important. We can't preserve everything, but there are certain critical structures we'd be grossly negligent if we didn't," Robey said.

Michael Walczak, executive director of the Howard County Historical Society, was more specific.

"At one time, it was a beautiful building, and examples of that type of architecture are kind of rare," he said. Perhaps more importantly, with the old barns, shed and tenant houses at Blandair, "it shows what a functioning large farm would be like," recalling Howard's rural past in an area now dominated by suburban homes and stores.

The main house dates from just before the Civil War, and replaced an 18th-century house on the same spot. Electricity and indoor plumbing were added after 1937 and farming continued on the land through the 1970s.

Smokehouses, barns and several tenant houses are as old as the main house.

County Recreation and Parks Director Gary J. Arthur said the first job will be to replace the roof on the house, which is now covered by a huge tarpaulin.

"There's water damage on the second floor and some of the floor joists may need to be replaced," Arthur said. The money would also pay for new windows, doors and flooring, and possibly modernization of utilities.

Another $800,000 to $1 million would be needed to restore the building for modern use, he said. The National Park Service will supervise the restoration.

Robey rejected critics of higher taxes who have suggested demolishing the mansion to save money.

Noting that he inherited the project from former Executive Charles I. Ecker, Robey said he won't likely see the park completed by the time he leaves office in 2006, either.

"Whomever comes after me will be very proud," he said.

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