18th-century manor poses a development dilemma

May 18, 2006|By MARY GAIL HARE | MARY GAIL HARE,SUN REPORTER

The stately brick manor has stood on a Harford County hillside since 1791 and has been home to several prominent Maryland families, including that of a former governor whose signature is on the Declaration of Independence.

But a developer's site plan refers to the two-story house near Bel Air as an "existing dwelling" that could be razed to make way for a luxury townhouse complex for senior citizens. And as county planners consider the proposal, preservationists have taken up the cause of trying to save the home.

"Eighteenth-century houses are not a renewable resource," Richard Sherrill, a Harford County Historical Society member, said at a development review meeting yesterday. "It would be devastating to take this one down."

Nottingham Properties Inc.'s plans are decidedly 21st century, calling for a 91-unit community for residents 55 and older called Oak Hill. On the plan presented yesterday, the house lies in the path of a "proposed roadway."

"Its new name is tiresome with no historic significance," said James Wollon, a preservation architect. "This is the finest house in Harford County from the post-Revolutionary period. It is a true rarity."

The property is owned by the estate of Henry H. Boyer, who was the most recent resident, and is under contract for sale to the Towson-based Nottingham. The developer did not return several phone calls seeking comment yesterday.

Preservationists argue that it's not just the house that is significant. The 61-acre site - originally owned by John Paca, father of Declaration of Independence signatory William Paca - could yield a trove of archaeological finds from its years as a grist mill, a tannery and a working farm. A small cemetery is on the grounds.

A landscape architect hired by Nottingham unveiled the initial plan for the farm yesterday at a meeting of the county Development Advisory Committee. Though residents expressed concerns about traffic and the potential for flooding in the area, pleas to preserve the house dominated the discussion.

"Its legacy dates to the roots of our nation's quest for freedom," said James McMahan, a Bel Air town commissioner. "This is a golden opportunity for the developer to show appropriate concern for our history."

Some are suggesting that the Georgian-style home with six fireplaces and richly paneled walls be incorporated into the plans and become the centerpiece of Oak Hill.

"This home is in excellent condition and could be adapted for reuse," said Maryanna Skowronski, administrator of the Historical Society of Harford County. "We would like to work with the developer to preserve the fabric of this county."

Moe Davenport, the committee chairman, said that a Nottingham representative called shortly before yesterday's review to say that converting the manor house into a clubhouse for the new complex remains an option.

"That offer is now in the public record," Davenport said. "There is no easy solution to this. The house is part of our history. ... But there is nothing I can do to protect this home or stop development."

The developer also offered to contribute $50,000 to help move the house to a suitable site should the renovation prove unworkable, Davenport said. Yesterday's review ended with the committee directing the architect to revise the plans to address traffic, flooding potential and other concerns.

There is precedence for a re-use option. Broadmead, a retirement home for about 385 residents in northern Baltimore County, includes Holly House, an 18th-century, Federal-style mansion that was renovated into a guest house and reception center.

"Holly House has become the central point here for us," said Brenda Becker, marketing director at Broadmead. "It costs money to keep it up, but it is possible to do."

During its more than 200-year history, the farm in Harford has been home to Thomas A. Hays, founding father of Bel Air, and Harry Dorsey Gough, a state legislator who also held several prominent positions in the county, according to archives at the historical society.

The property sits along Moores Mill Road across from Southampton Middle School, just outside the Bel Air city limits. Subdivisions have replaced much of the farmland along the road, which has become a busy county byway on which 12,000 vehicles travel daily.

"We are getting the `Anywhere, USA' look," said Sallee Kunkel Filkins, economic development administrator for the town of Bel Air. "Here is an amenity that would set this development apart."

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

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