Historic park might get some help

Recreation: Patapsco Female Institute in Ellicott City could receive a $1 million infusion to improve `creature comforts.'

September 26, 2004|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

Nearly 40 years after it became a county park, the Patapsco Female Institute might be getting a face-lift.

The Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks unveiled a plan last week for $1 million worth of improvements over three years at the historic park in Ellicott City, which includes the restored shell of a 19th- century girls' school.

Supporters say a scarcity of parking spaces and portable toilets, and lack of areas protected from the weather, have hindered the site's ability to hold programs and attract visitors.

"One problem is, there are not enough creature comforts," said Clara Gouin, a parks planner who directed the master plan efforts.

At a parks department meeting Wednesday evening, two other groups made their cases for partnerships with the county that could result in an expansive farm museum on county parkland in West Friendship and a new tennis complex at Troy Park near Elkridge.

Those plans are in their early stages, but the Patapsco Female Institute master plan has been completed, and the Recreation and Parks Advisory Board is considering including the project in its budget for the next fiscal year.

The school, which was built in 1837, educated young women until 1891, after which it became a hotel, then a rehabilitation hospital, a residence and a theater. In 1965, the deteriorating structure was purchased by the county, which secured many of the remaining walls and the front entrance in the mid-1990s.

The nonprofit Friends of the Patapsco Female Institute manages the site and offers history programs, archaeological digs and ghost tours, among other events each year.

"I cannot tell you how difficult it is to do a program there," said Jacquelyn Galke, executive director of the Friends group, which operates out of a historic home down a long hill from the institute grounds. When she takes groups to the ruins, "we're open to the elements," she said.

The first two phases of the master plan call for indoor restrooms, a parking lot, a 30-by-50-foot shelter, better roads and improvements to crumbling retaining walls and stone stairs on the hilly property. A later phase includes two gazebos, formal gardens, landscaping and new patios.

The department estimates that $152,000 will be needed for project design and initial work on retaining walls and stairs in fiscal 2006. More precise cost estimates will be available after engineers and architects weigh in. The total cost has been projected at $1,014,000.

Long-range plans, not included in the cost estimate, call for rebuilding some structures to make room for staff members to be on site, which Galke said would enable many more drop-in visitors.

The parks department also might turn a dilapidated swimming pool into a sunken garden, enclose the basement of the institute's chapel and create an outdoor stage.

"In a county filled with cookie-cutter houses, countless cul-de-sacs ... sites like PFI stand as a reminder of our unique historical and cultural past," Mary Catherine Cochran, spokeswoman for Preservation Howard County, said at the parks department meeting.

"We now know that adaptive use of these ... historic sites can be financially rewarding," she said, offering Savage Mill and the Ellicott City Historic District as examples.

Two other projects were proposed at the meeting.

The Howard County Antique Farm Machinery Club has been collecting remnants of the area's rural past - and raising money through its annual consignment auction and other events - since 1995 with the mission of setting up a permanent display.

"We're almost a turnkey museum," said John Frank, the club's president. "We just need the property."

The group is asking the parks department to lease it the West Friendship Park site along Route 144 near Route 32. Group members plan to rehabilitate several buildings there for offices and displays, and add several more for exhibits and living-history demonstrations.

Among more than 300 items, the group has equipment from local lumber and cider mills, combines, hay rakes, tractors, butter churns, school desks and log cabins that have been moved from other sites in the county.

The club presents demonstrations at the Howard County Fair, local schools and its annual Farm Heritage Days at Mount Pleasant Farm in Woodstock.

"I think [West Friendship] is an ideal spot for the proposal," James Clark Jr., a farmer and former state senator, told the advisory board. "We have the money to build a nice museum; we're not asking you for any money."

Howard County Tennis and Fitness Center LLC, made up of local tennis supporters, proposed a public-private partnership with the department to build and operate a 25-court regional tennis center on about 17 acres of parkland near Interstate 95 and Route 100.

The group submitted a proposal that said interest in the sport is high in the Mid-Atlantic region but that a shortage of courts is frustrating players.

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