Old school finds new use

Restored: A class of seventh-graders began the effort to save an 1880s-era school.

July 13, 2004|By Melanie R. Holmes | Melanie R. Holmes,SUN STAFF

In 1989, a class of seventh-graders from North Laurel's Hammond Middle School became Howard County heroes by raising money to save a historic schoolhouse from demolition.

Now, 15 years and $400,000 later, Pfeiffer's Corner School in Elkridge has been restored to its original condition with the exception of a few modern installations and will be ready for public use this fall.

The school, which is at Rockburn Branch Park, will serve multiple purposes.

"It will be used for historic interpretation," said Clara Gouin, a park planner. "It will also be used as a meeting space for small meetings."

Gary J. Arthur, the county's director of recreation and parks, suggested that elementary school pupils might tour the school or visit for a day. The park, he added, is an ideal location for Pfeiffer's.

"We have a heritage section of the park, and we're going to market it as a part of the heritage division," Arthur said. "Rockburn Branch Park is probably the closest in terms of regional parks to the original location of Pfeiffer's."

Believed by preservationists to have been built in 1883, the one-room, "whites only" schoolhouse closed in 1933 and was converted to a private home.

By the time the North Laurel seventh-graders visited on a field trip in 1989, the building sat deteriorating on a clearing near a highway in Columbia.

Hearing of plans to destroy the building to create an environmental area, the pupils launched a campaign that raised $16,500 to have the school moved to a temporary location at Middle Patuxent Environmental Area, where it sat until the move in May of last year to its current location.

With the county paying $100,000 and the state paying the balance of $300,000, restoration began shortly after.

"It was restored as best as we could to its original schoolhouse look," said Mike Albrecht, owner of Albrecht Construction Corp., which restored the property.

Albrecht described what needed to be done:

"The building had been left in the open for years and had received extensive water damage. There was a lot of rotten wood we had to restore. We did a heating and air-conditioning system, flooring, walls and ceilings. We replicated the original wainscoting, replaced and restored the windows, put a new roof on it. Then of course we had to make it [Americans with Disabilities Act]-accessible, so we added a handicap ramp and bathroom."

He added: "Complete restoration is what it was."

Workers were able to salvage some of the school's original furnishings - including a porcelain doorknob, a potbellied stove and a teacher's desk - and use them in the restored building.

Albrecht said the project took about a year but was prolonged by the addition of a sprinkler system. "It had to go through fire marshal approval," he said.

The restoration was made more challenging by the staircase, extra windows, higher ceilings and additional walls that had been added when the building was converted from a school to a home, Gouin said.

"We had to do a lot of detective work to find out what the original school building looked like," she said. "We had a lot of interviews with people that used to go to the schoolhouse. It was looking like a house when we got it. Most people would never know it was a schoolhouse."

Architectural historian Lisa Jenson Wingate was hired to uncover the clues to the school's 19th-century appearance.

"It's being an architectural Sherlock Holmes," she said of the job. "Look at the architecture and figure out if it's been changed, and if it's been changed how has it been changed."

Pfeiffer's Corner School is the county's second restored schoolhouse. The first was Ellicott City Colored School, which was built in the early 1880s.

With the restoration complete, the saga of Pfeiffer's Corner School is finally ending. Once the grass has grown and landscaping is done, the dedication ceremony is expected to be held in September or October.

Lindsay McCaskill, one of approximately 26 seventh-graders who fought for Pfeiffer's survival, is pleased to know the school will remain a part of county history.

"There was a period of time we were afraid it was going to slip through the cracks," said McCaskill, who is 26 and a lawyer in California. "A lot of people felt we'd never get to this day, so I'm glad to hear that it actually did."

The Department of Recreation and Parks is planning a grand opening and ribbon cutting for the Pfeiffer's Corner School in late September. If you were a teacher or student at the school, or if you were a Hammond Middle School student who helped to save the school in the late l980s, please contact Barbara Lett, Special Events Coordinator, at 410- 313-4632.

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