Historic London Town visitor center finished

$5.1 million project converts old treatment plant into modern structure

September 29, 2006|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN REPORTER

At Historic London Town and Gardens in Edgewater, office staffers, volunteers and custodial workers scurried yesterday to set up a party after the ribbon cutting for the $5.1 million visitor center.

That doesn't mean it's open yet.

The eight-year-long project, delayed by construction slowdowns and last-minute code compliance glitches, is not expected to be completed until later in the fall.

But for the former Colonial-era settlement known as "a lost town on the Chesapeake Bay," the lateness is just a blink of an eye in time.

Archaeology, horticulture and history are the main components of the 23-acre educational site on the South River, a preserved tobacco port with a popular tavern that became a county almshouse in the 19th and 20th centuries. Eight acres of woodland gardens, along with ornamental floral displays, make up the scenic waterfront.

Construction began two years ago to convert an idle, 40-year-old wastewater sewage plant into a contemporary two-story visitor center, with an energy-efficient (green) roof and rooms for film-viewing, schoolchildren's visits and a library.

A new greenhouse, archaeology lab and a major exhibit space for displaying artifacts found on the former Colonial and Native American site are among the other additions to the public facility - infrastructure to last 50 years or more, county officials predicted.

State transportation funds contributed $2.6 million to the project's cost.

"This [center] preserves and enhances our transportation history, since this was the first port in Maryland, the original location of our maritime history," state Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan said yesterday. "And it's an idyllic spot for the community."

Despite projections that the new 12,000-square-foot campus of buildings would be completed last year, construction delays have pushed the date back.

Donna M. Ware, a county official who directs the London Town facility, said "fine-tuning" building inspections and fire code compliance have been a large part of the problem, including installing the public announcement system now required for fire evacuations of large county buildings.

Even the day before the scheduled event, last-minute uncertainty and suspense colored well-laid plans. The county fire marshal didn't approve the site for the ceremony until late on Wednesday, organizers said.

The sea-blue ribbon came out for yesterday's cutting, signifying the mermaid icon painted on three 18th-century Delft plates unearthed at London Town, said Beth James, an executive assistant.

As at any pre-party scene, everyone on hand was enlisted in the effort.

Anne Pace of Galesville, a trustee, asked Ware in jest at about noon, "Do I have a job to do, or am I a guest?"

Meanwhile, Dale Tippens of Annapolis, a custodian, vacuumed the visitor center's downstairs level.

"It's extravagant," Tippens told Ware. "I'm proud to be working here."

Half an hour later, chefs and bartenders arrived to put out a fall-themed banquet of savory snacks for 150 guests.

Patsy Peters, London Town's director of events, glanced at the sky and said, "Clouds are coming in, but we'll be fine."

A few hours later, Janet S. Owens, the county executive, spoke at the sun-splashed ceremony and expressed pleasure that the project was ending.

"This (London Town) is one of the real historical treasures of the county," Owens said. "We should celebrate all that we've accomplished."

jamie.stiehm@baltsun.com

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