When the community values preservation

Houses: Neighbors are taking an interest in the fate of Ellicott City's older homes.

October 10, 2004|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

When Jeanne Allert bought a nearly 130-year-old Ellicott City home in January, she found herself the subject of some scrutiny.

Fellow owners of older properties on Church Road in the city's historic district stopped by to see what she was up to, Allert said. And they seemed happy to learn that she was living in the home and, with boyfriend and co-owner Daniel Law, reclaiming the house from its former use as several apartments.

Allert said that in her experience, many owners of older homes "become rabidly passionate about preservation."

Government agencies and preservation groups in Howard County have turned several historic structures into museums and educational sites, such as the B&O Railroad Station Museum and Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park. But the majority of homes dating back a hundred years or more are owned by private citizens.

When those homes change hands, as several prominent and many lesser-known properties have this year, community members and history buffs take notice.

"Over the last 20 years we have lost a substantial number of historic properties to demolition and development," said Mary Catherine Cochran, a spokeswoman for Preservation Howard County. She estimates that at least 25 percent of the county's historic homes have been knocked down in the past 20 years.

"The ones that are left are unique and very rare and need to be looked out for," she said.

Some are in the public eye, such as Font Hill, a 10-bedroom mid-18th-century home that is being used as Historic Ellicott City Inc.'s decorator show house this year. It is on the market for $1.5 million.

Lilburn, a mid-19th-century manor known for its ghost stories, was the 1997 decorator show house. It sold in July for $1.2 million.

Castle Angelo, which overlooks Ellicott City from a perch on Church Road, was built in the 1830s in the style of a French chateau. In the 1980s, its owners raised five children as they remodeled the house, replaced the roof, restored the exterior and put in central air and heat, according to an account in Janet Kusterer and Charlotte Holland's update of the book Ellicott City Maryland: Mill Town U.S.A.

The house is for sale; the asking price is $899,000.

"In the last two years, we've seen more of these homes available than in years prior," said Kimberly Kepnes, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker's Enchanted Forest office.

She said there always has been strong buyer interest in such homes, but availability -- improved recently by the strong housing market -- is usually low.

While many people are enamored of the idea of a historic home, the pool of serious buyers prepared to deal with the quirks of an aged property tends to be small.

"People ... have to want the maintenance and cost of being the steward of an older property," said Susan McKillip, a real estate agent with Long and Foster in Columbia.

As development has grown around the structures, "almost every old house has been compromised in some way," she said, whether it is a highway passing nearby, a neighbor's home sitting too close or an unusual landscape that makes it difficult to move in.

It may take effort, but finding the right buyer can be a good thing from a preservation standpoint.

"When a home is sold to a developer or a builder, you worry whether the structural or historical integrity of the house will be protected," Cochran said.

For example, Preservation Howard County worked with residents to fight changes two business partners wanted to make when they bought an 18th-century Quaker Meeting House in Ellicott City. They planned to replace a rear addition with a larger one and put a dormer on the roof, among other projects.

Members of Patapsco Friends Meeting thought the board should protect the simple style of the structure that was indicative of its history. But the owners of the property -- which had been a private residence for decades -- said their plan was respectful while meeting the needs of modern homeowners.

The owners received permission from Howard County's Historic District Commission to make the changes. Before it was temporarily removed from the market, the house was listed for $1.85 million.

Private homeowners are within their rights to remodel or replace aging homes, and often can make a significant profit by doing so. But many preservationists are sad to see it happen.

"Unfortunately, in a county that is this tight in land and housing resources, I think you are going to see more and more developers take over these properties and develop the land around them or alter property so significantly that it loses its historic significance," Cochran said.

But even historic-home buffs don't expect every house to remain untouched by improvements. Maintenance often requires that roofs, siding, porches and other exterior elements be fixed and replaced.

In the historic districts in Ellicott City and Elkridge, regulations outline what materials, colors and styles are acceptable, and tax incentives and other financial help is available.

It is also common for owners to fix up the inside of older homes. Some are dedicated to preserving every original element, but more are like Allert, who said she wants "modern in terms of functionality, and not look."

She and Law wanted "to fix things and clean things, but you don't change the integrity of the house," she said.

Allert, who owns an Internet consulting company, and Law, a landscape architect, enjoy doing most projects themselves. They have knocked down a wall that blocked an original hallway, bought custom-made molding to match the original design and spent days removing wallpaper and restoring plaster in the house, which they purchased for $450,000.

Despite the hard work, Allert said, she wanted an old home when she decided to move from the Guilford neighborhood in Baltimore. New homes "all look alike," she said.

And, she said, from its perch hundreds of feet above the Patapsco River, "It has the best view of Ellicott City, bar none."

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