Building has murky past - and future

Preservation: Is Tribble House a remnant of local African-American history? Those seeking to save it from a road project say yes, but the facts are disputed.


September 26, 2004|By Erika Hobbs | Erika Hobbs,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

A19th-century home on the edge of a slave-era African-American community has become a touchstone in the struggle between community preservationists and government officials over a proposed roads project that could demolish it and several other historic homes.

Tribble House, named after current owners Evinger and Brenda Tribble, has passed a significant governmental hurdle in the couple's yearlong attempt to preserve the Victorian-style home as a county landmark.

The Tribble House is in the Belltown-Mount Pleasant district, a traditionally white community with pockets of African-American neighborhoods. Tribble House sits on a corner where Pleasant Hill Road meets Church Lane, on the cusp of such a historic African-American Belltown neighborhood. County researchers date the building to the late 1890s. Evinger Tribble's research suggests the house was built about 40 years earlier.

In March, the county's Landmarks Preservation Commission, an agency of 15 volunteer members, ruled that the Tribble House met its stringent criteria and recommended that the County Council consider it for preservation.

A landmark designation prevents demolition without county approval. There are 236 properties on the county's landmark preservation list; fewer than a half-dozen are approved each year, landmark preservation officials said.

A property must meet certain standards before the County Council can designate it a landmark: It must be linked to a historically important event or person; exhibit distinct architectural style; demonstrate the work of a noted architect or master builder; and display significant artistic merit, or yield important historical information.

The Tribble House, on Pleasant Hill Road, was recommended to the council mainly because it represents Belltown's African-American heritage, said Vicky Nevy, a coordinator for the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

County records also show that Tribble House exhibits architectural distinction. It is a 2 1/2 -story, late-Victorian-style frame house with touches of emerging Gothic Revival style: a cross-gable on the front facade with a Victorian round-topped window rather than the classic pointed top.

Its heavily paneled door is composed of two leaves, and it has large, two-over-two, double-hung, floor-to-ceiling sash windows on the first floor.

"I like Victorian-style houses," said Evinger Tribble, 55, who grew up building houses with his father. "They don't build houses now like this one was built."

After the commission makes its recommendation, the county executive has 60 days to review it. After that, a public hearing is held and the County Council holds a vote. So far, no action has been taken on Tribble House, said county official Thomas J. Peddicord Jr.

But Tribble House is being held up as an example by community preservationists who are trying to stop a proposed project that would extend Dolfield Road. The project would bisect Belltown, they contend, demolish more than a half-dozen architectural artifacts and destroy a historically significant African-American community.

"The project is unneeded, unnecessary, and all it does is take people's homes," said Noel Levy, a board member of the Belltown-Mount Pleasant Homeowners Association. "It's a big mistake from start to finish."

Levy said that several residents plan to seek landmark status for a number of other properties in the area, including one where Revolutionary War hero John Bell lived. They are awaiting the final vote for Tribble House first, he said.

According to local historian Louis Diggs, a member of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, records indicate that Belltown, a small community of a few roads centered on the Mount Pleasant African Methodist Episcopal Church, was established around 1846.

"It is extremely important that the local and state governments do not demolish structures in our historic African-American communities because so many of these communities are gradually fading away," Diggs said via e-mail.

"Belltown is typical of this type of community; when families move out, other African-American families do not move in. It is important to the historical integrity of Baltimore County to save as many of our historical structures and communities as possible," he said.

The history of Tribble House, however, isn't entirely clear.

According to county historian John McGrain, records show the area along Pleasant Hill Road west of Reisterstown Road historically was a suburb for wealthy white residents who worked in Baltimore and commuted by train from an Owings Mills station.

Pockets of African-American neighborhoods formed in the area south of Tollgate Road and north of Pleasant Hill Road, he said. The Tribble House edges one of those neighborhoods, he added, and records so far show that no African-American family owned the Tribble House until the current owners moved in.

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