Closing of Historic Oella Mill

Artists and antique dealers remaining in the building along the Patapsco River will move on after today's auction. A developer may buy the 1918 structure.

January 22, 2005|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

The easels and paintbrushes are gone. The bagpipe museum, billed as one of a kind in the nation, is being moved. And today, the artists and antique dealers left at the Historic Oella Mill are scheduled to auction off the remaining teacups, typewriters and tables in their eclectic collections.

The early 20th-century mill is closing.

The shop owners and artists who rented space in the airy brick building say they have been told the 5.8-acre property on the western edge of Baltimore County near Ellicott City is being sold to a developer, who might renovate it for an apartment complex.

"It's heartbreaking to me," said Diane Walters, a former human resources recruiter from Essex, who shopped at the mill just before Christmas and returned this week to see her favorite shops nearly empty. "There were so many terrific, eclectic, fun things here."

For years, the mill overlooking the Patapsco River has been a favorite haunt for those searching for everything from pink flamingo yard stakes and funky lamps to lovingly restored armoires and reupholstered fainting couches. But for nearly as long, the building has been for sale.

After a lengthy court battle over zoning issues, a Cleveland-based developer was poised to convert the building into 175 luxury apartments in 2003, but then apparently walked away from the deal. Some of the shop owners seemed to think the attempts to sell the property might drag on for another few years, only to receive notice after Christmas that they had to move out by the end of this month.

"It's not exactly a shock. With month-to-month leases, we knew this could happen at any time," said Dan Weinstein, one of the owners of the Lazy Lion. "But it's sad."

Several shops, including the Lazy Lion, occupy the first floor of the mill. The second floor is "antique row," with dozens of independent dealers - many of whom shared a telephone and helped each other's customers. The third floor was used as a gallery and studios for artists working on everything from woodcarvings to oil paintings.

There also were upholsterers in the mill and a yoga studio.

Paul Wolfgang, the "P" in P.J.'s Antiques, which he owns with his wife, Julie Wolfgang, said the artistic and creative types in the mill make for a unique family. "You probably couldn't get a group of people like this together except in prison," Wolfgang said, laughing. "It's a fun group."

The artists and shop owners said they had to deal with a leaking roof and drafts that make the building especially cold in the winter, but they said the rents were relatively inexpensive. Depending on the space, some rents were less than $300 a month. Just down the hill in Ellicott City, dealers might pay three times as much for retail space, they said.

"It's been tough to find the right space on such short notice," said Linda Farndon, owner of the Wild Goose Chase. "A lot of us weren't looking because there was just as much a chance that it wouldn't sell."

Some of the antique dealers have found space in Ellicott City. Others dealers, including Farndon, have put their inventories in storage, waiting to find buildings with lower rent. Others have called it quits, including the curator of the Bagpipe Music Museum.

"It was a labor of love," said James R. Coldren. His collection, which includes 100 sets of bagpipes, 1,400 CDs and cassettes of bagpiper music, and thousands of music manuscripts, is being moved to the New Hampshire School of Scottish Arts.

Coldren, a retired mechanical engineer, said he had been looking for someone to take over his unique museum for many years because it was getting harder for him to supervise it.

As the last boxes were packed and dealers prepared for today's scheduled auction - previews are to begin at 8 a.m. - the week was especially emotional for dealers and shoppers.

`In this gray middle'

"I'm in this gray middle, being depressed about the last days here and the uncertainty of the future," said Sherry Russell, owner of Antique Blues, who has stored most of her inventory.

Russell said she could hear the nearby river and distant trains chugging along and would often think about women who had worked at the mill. "It was magical," she said.

The property was home to a mill starting in 1809, when Union Manufacturing Co. opened the first textile plant in Maryland. The mill burned down in 1918 and was replaced the same year with the current brick building. The working mill, named for the first woman said to have spun cotton in America, closed in 1972. Outhouses and wells were replaced with public water and sewer services in 1984.

County officials estimate it would cost about $24 million to renovate the mill in its current state.

Details about the sale apparently are not final, and plans are being kept quiet. Calls to the building's owner and property manager were not returned.

Some favor residences

Although there had been some community concerns about the traffic and parking when an apartment project was proposed, some Oella residents say they hope the building will be renovated for residences.

"We're waiting with great anticipation to hear the details," said Julia Graham, who lives nearby on Oella Avenue and favors a residential use for the building. She and others are concerned that the renovation will be delayed until it will cost too much to repair. "I'm basically afraid the building will fall down," she said.

County Councilman Stephen G. Samuel Moxley, who represents the area, said he agreed.

"I worry if something isn't done soon, it will be too late," said Moxley. "I just want to see the building renovated. ... The mill is so much a part of Oella and its history."

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