Worry about preserving county history

The loss of a 95-year-old barn and the possible threat to two 19th-century buildings rekindle concern about ability to protect significant structures


The dismantling of a 1910 dairy barn in Ellicott City has raised preservationists' concerns about the county's ability to protect historic buildings.

Their specific worry is not the demolished wooden barn, but the fate of two other 19th-century stone buildings in the same cluster of Mount Hebron farm structures, said Mary Catherine Cochran, president of Preservation Howard County.

One is a large barn thought once to have served as slave quarters, and the second is a smaller, Civil War-era tenant house on the 8-acre property. The landowner, H.J. Baker, 86, of Columbia, said he has sold the land to Elm Street Development of McLean, Va., for a 14-home development.

Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church owns the stone mansion on the property, which local historian Joetta Cramm said once was the home of Judge Thomas Beale Dorsey who helped found Howard County in 1851.

Cramm said a fireplace and signs of wall plaster on the upper floor of the barn suggest that slaves once lived there. "Often slaves lived in that kind of housing," she said.

Log cabins that once dotted the property are gone, she said.

Now surrounded by modern suburban homes, the remaining buildings sit in a secluded, leafy hollow off Mount Hebron Road behind the church.

Cochran said the larger issue is how to prevent destruction of more historic buildings as new homes rise on former farms.

"It's the fact that the law doesn't have any teeth that is very upsetting to everybody in the historic preservation community," said Cochran. "One of the things we've been pushing ... for five years is a county preservation plan."

Though the wooden barn is not considered historic, the stone buildings are, she said. "It points out the need again to review the policy."

The wooden barn on what is left of the Baker family's former 500-acre farm was taken down without a permit or a hearing before the county's Historic District Commission. The hearing is required because the site is on the county's historic registry.

Jennifer Gould, a grant-funded historic site surveyor, said Baker was not cited with a violation because the real concern is for the stone buildings, which were not touched. After a meeting with officials Thursday, Baker acknowledged that any plan to demolish the stone buildings requires a hearing.

Baker said the wooden barn had to come down because it was in danger of falling from termite damage and rotted underpinnings. His family has owned the land since 1920.

"It was leaning," Baker said. He hired Carl Fugate, whose CCR Timber Salvage Co. specializes in antique, hand-hewed lumber, to dismantle the barn and sell the wood.

Baker said he expects that the stone buildings eventually will come down, too. The last section of the farm is gone, he said.

"It's sold," he said, scoffing at the idea of saving the house and the old stone barn, which he says has a cracked foundation. "If they did declare that salvageable, who's going to buy it? ... It costs too much to restore it. I don't have the money."

Fred Dorsey, an official with Preservation Howard County and a distant relative of Thomas Beale Dorsey, is concerned about the county's lack of a uniform policy for dealing with historic buildings as outlined in the last general plan.

If such a policy had been adopted, he said, "we'd all be singing on the same page instead of running through these fire drills all the time."

Marsha S. McLaughlin, the county planning director, said Gould is compiling an inventory of historic sites and buildings.

"We've been trying to tighten up on the process," she said.

Places on the county historic inventory must go before the commission, though she conceded that "at the moment there is no absolute prohibition" on demolishing historic buildings.

"It's always a tricky balance," she said.


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