Owners seek to save house

Aberdeen: Janice M. Grant is hoping to save the historic structure that has been in her family for nine decades.

December 19, 2004|By Josh Mitchell | Josh Mitchell,SUN STAFF

When the city of Aberdeen ordered Janice M. Grant to tear down her dilapidated house, it was enough to turn her into an overnight history buff.

Racing against the imminent wrecking ball, Grant pulled out tattered newspaper clippings and yellowing letters and interviewed relatives about the home her family has owned for nine decades.

She wrote a four-page primer on the history of her early 1900s Colonial: How Eleanor Roosevelt twice visited Grant's aunt, an aide to the first lady, and how the house was among the first in the city owned by blacks.

Grant, 72, even got the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to write a supportive letter to Aberdeen, noting the house's link to African-American history.

City public works officials condemned the building this fall and gave Grant and her husband, Woodrow B. Grant Jr., a state education administrator, two months to tear it down.

The city yielded, a little, and extended the deadline indefinitely after the Grants, who live in another home nearby, pledged to renovate the house and use it as housing for Christian missionaries.

City officials say the home has deteriorated into a moldering wreck with broken beams, dangling wires, broken windows and no running water.

"Vagrants will occupy it, drug activity will occur," City Manager Peter Dacey said. "If a child was to get into the house and something happened to the child, it becomes a public safety concern."

Grant's belated reaction is typical of homeowners when officials turn to their weapon of last resort: the demolition order, officials say. The orders often follow months of meetings, warnings and notices.

Some resistance

The city condemns three or four buildings a year, most of them abandoned houses. Often the city meets resistance.

Last year, when officials condemned an old CSX train station on West Bel Air Avenue, the Harford Historical Society and other preservation agencies intervened.

They declared the graffiti-covered station a historic landmark and got thousands of dollars in grants to restore it.

In the case of the Grants' house on a 4-acre estate at 411 Edmund St., the trouble started in 2001. Neighbors began complaining of garbage in front of the house, including a beat-up car with no license plate, Dacey said.

The city condemned two houses on the property, one of which the Grants demolished.

But the couple refuse to tear down the second house, which has been in the family since Janice Grant's great-grandmother moved there, on what was then a fruit farm, with her two children in 1917.

The Grants say they have made repairs and that an engineer they paid to inspect the house said that it is not condemnable.

More repairs are needed, they said, but they have been low on money because they have had to pay for a number of family funerals in recent years.

Neighborhood issue

But the real issue, they say, is that the city has singled them out, bowing to the complaints of a few neighbors.

"As far as we're concerned, it's discrimination," said Janice Grant, a retired Harford County schools teacher.

The Grants claim that other homes that have fallen into disrepair have not been condemned and slated for demolition. They also say the city has exaggerated its claim about neighbors' complaints.

Mark K. Dickinson, who lives several doors down from the house on Edmund Street, called the house an "eyesore."

"But instead of [complaining] about it, I was just waiting to see if they were going to fix it up," he said.

The Grants said they are trying to raise money to renovate the house. The total bill: $250,000. They have applied for grants from local and state agencies and are soliciting donations through their nonprofit ministry.

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