Old town almost ready to present brand-new look

Historic London Town and Gardens nears completion of a $5.1 million visitor center

February 01, 2006|By ANDREA F. SIEGEL | ANDREA F. SIEGEL,SUN REPORTER

Construction is expected to be completed this month on the conversion of an abandoned sewage treatment plant into a $5.1 million visitor center-museum-classroom-archaeology lab at Historic London Town and Gardens, the faded Colonial tobacco port that is now a historic site.

"We're down to final inspections," said Richard H. Ormsby of James F. Knott Construction Co. of Timonium, the general contractor.

The new center, mostly underground, is designed to explain the significance of the 23-acre, county-owned park, making a cohesive story out of what remains, what has been re-created, what's gone and what's being dug up.

Aboveground, visitors will see two single-story buildings of faded wood and glass. In one, a staircase leads down to the expansive former tank. The other building sits atop the tank. The rooflines and scale match those of an old tobacco barn that was moved to the park and of the re-created Lord Mayor's Tenement, a home typical of the Colonial era.

London Town, on the South River, went from Colonial boom to bust in less than a century.

From 1683 to the mid-1700s, it surged as a gateway to the Colonies and as the home of brisk import-export trades. As tobacco leaves left, slaves, spices and exotic items entered. Young Britons risked their lives to sail across the Atlantic Ocean for the prospect of making fortunes in the New World. Many did not survive the harsh realities of indentured servitude.

As fast as London Town sprouted, it withered. In 1747, the Colonial government decided against authorizing the hub, run by newly wealthy Scottish families, as a tobacco port. The town died.

Oddly, its most enduring building was the William Brown House -- a grand brick home that was atypical of the settlement and later became the county's poorhouse. The tiny cratelike wood structures that were the taverns, shops and homes of Colonial families have crumbled away.

The visitor center is part of a larger plan to turn London Town into a living-history and educational park. It draws 20,000 visitors, plus several thousand schoolchildren, annually.

The center was to have been largely finished last fall, but complications led to delays. Still, said Donna Ware, executive director of the park, that puts the center closer to the timeline for its museum exhibit spaces, which are being designed for probable opening next fall.

Work on the $5.1 million center is down to carpeting and carpentry inside. Most landscaping -- including a green roof and ponds to filter water -- will have to wait for warmer weather, Ware said.

Furniture for the classroom is on order, with hopes that at least that part of the center can be used this spring by students, Ware said.

A tiny fraction of the thousands of items excavated at the park will be selected for display. But the blue-and-white mermaid plate unearthed in shards in the cellar of what more than 300 years ago had been Rumney's Tavern will be on display. Officials have made the dinner-size plate the symbol for London Town.

andrea.siegel@baltsun.com

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