Poplar Hill needs owner to move it and use it

Oldest house in Aberdeen is in danger of being lost, preservationists warn

July 30, 2006|By CASSANDRA A. FORTIN | CASSANDRA A. FORTIN,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

On Poplar Hill Road in Aberdeen, directly across the street from Wal-Mart, is a 34-acre farm property containing three houses.

One of the three structures, an American Colonial named Poplar Hill, was built between 1750 and 1775, and James Wollon, an architect who specializes in historic preservation, says that makes it the oldest standing house in Aberdeen.

Poplar Hill was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. It is a rare property not only in Aberdeen, but also in the county.

"Harford County has few buildings from the Colonial period that are still standing, and Poplar Hill is one of them," said Wollon. "And unlike some structures, it retains much of the original detailing."

Despite the house's historical significance, it could be demolished unless someone antes up more than $1 million to relocate and restore it.

Wollon said the house is a perfect candidate for such an endeavor.

"Poplar Hill has always been maintained, but it has never been restored," he said.

For more than 100 years, Mitchell family descendants have owned Poplar Hill. But after the death of Catherine Mitchell in January, her survivors reluctantly resolved to sell the house, which has been rented for about 50 years, to settle her estate.

Although they don't have any takers yet, it's only a matter of time before the land will be sold, said James Pomeroy of Frederick, Mitchell's son-in-law.

"We don't want to sell the house or the land, but we have no choice," said Pomeroy, 75. "We're just hoping that someone will care enough about Poplar Hill's importance to the history of Aberdeen and want to move and restore it."

Poplar Hill was originally the home of a prosperous planter. It hasn't undergone any restoration, but an abundance of noteworthy features are intact, Wollon said.

The 1 1/2 -story house has a gambrel roof, one that is two-sided and has two slopes, the lower of which is the steepest, said Wollon.

"The gambrel roof was popular because it was documented as a 1 1/2 -story house rather than two stories, which saved the owners money on taxes," Wollon said. "Also, it allowed as much square footage in the second story as a full story, and it was easier to build."

Other distinguishing features include a kitchen with a gabled roof addition that was probably added about a century ago. The original kitchen was probably a separate building, according to a report compiled by the Aberdeen Heritage Trust.

The architectural features of the parlor are the most remarkable, the report said. That room includes distinctive paneling, an unframed fireplace that is about 4 feet wide and 4 feet tall, and hand-carved butterfly shelves, the report said.

Restorer needed

The Pomeroys are hoping for a buyer or caretaker interested in restoring the house.

They have contacted the city of Aberdeen, the National Historic Trust and the Historical Society of Harford County.

At one point, Aberdeen was to buy the property, Pomeroy said.

"Aberdeen officials took the key and everything but ended up getting involved with some other projects and the deal fell through," he said.

Recently, Pomeroy contacted the National Trust for Historic Preservation, to no avail.

"Poplar Hill is small and doesn't have any grandeur," he said.

Regardless of the house's size, it isn't a project that the National Trust would typically undertake, said Chandler Batteile, a development officer who works for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

"We usually get involved on preservation projects when local and state assistance is exhausted," Batteile said. "But Poplar Hill is a unique and interesting house, and it should be preserved."

Tales of George Washington sleeping in the house and of a ghost roaming its halls and the discovery of Civil War artifacts on the property haven't been enough to rally preservationists to the cause.

Few houses the size of Poplar Hill were as sophisticated, Wollon said.

"A small house of that quality was head and shoulders above everyone else's," he said. "A preservationist could easily restore the house to its original condition because it's almost all there."

The cost of restoring the property could exceed $1 million, not including moving the house, Wollon said.

"The house needs proper electricity and a new heat system and air conditioning," he said. "It has not been upgraded at all. And you have to be careful not to destroy the original fabric of the house or it's antiquity."

The house's elegance isn't enough to secure town and federal government funding. Wollon attributes that to a lack of desire to preserve Harford's history.

"Preservation is not popular in Harford County," he said. "Harford County is interested in development and making money. If this house were in Anne Arundel County, it would be a treasure."

Options studied

Harford County has no jurisdiction over property within the Aberdeen town limits, said Robert Mercado, the county's historic preservation planner.

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