Preservation group makes list of threatened Md. sites

Report identifies 11 `endangered' historic places and structures

February 28, 2007|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Sun reporter

Seeking to rally public support for saving some of Maryland's most historic buildings, a statewide group of preservationists published a list yesterday of landmarks "endangered" by neglect, decay and development.

What Preservation Maryland uncovered in the process, though, was just how difficult it can be to get consensus on how to save some old sites - or even agreement that they're in need of help.

Leading the preservation group's list of threatened historic properties was St. Peter's Cemetery, an overgrown 19th-century West Baltimore graveyard. One of the caretakers for the 22-acre burial ground, though, denied yesterday that her group needed any help clearing the brush and trees that obscure many markers.

"The place is not in need of quick fixes, which will not fix it," said Elizabeth McAlister, a resident of Jonah House, the commune of war resisters that tends the Catholic cemetery by arrangement with the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

A spokeswoman for Preservation Maryland said the state's oldest historic preservation group wanted to highlight the need to save historic properties when it released its first-ever statewide list of 11 significant structures or sites that face threats to their survival.

"We want things that people can, at the individual or community level, get together and save," said Connie Anderton, communications director for Preservation Maryland. The group teamed up with Maryland Life, a monthly magazine, to publicize the properties and their challenges.

The list included one other Baltimore site: the Sellers mansion, a long-abandoned 19th-century house on Lafayette Square. The preservation group said it "faces substantial deterioration" because the owner and neighbors differ over new uses for the building.

Other Baltimore-area landmarks on the threatened list include Aberdeen's old train station and Doughoregan Manor, the ancestral home in Howard County of Charles Carroll, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

The Aberdeen rail depot, designed by a noted Philadelphia architect, once bustled with passengers, soldiers and cargo, but it has sat unused since 1960 and was condemned four years ago by the city, according to Maryanna Skowronski, director of the Historical Society of Harford County.

Now fenced off, the station sits in limbo as the historical society strives to find land and enough money to relocate and restore the aging structure. Skowronski said a feasibility study suggested the project could cost upwards of $500,000. The society's lease on the station runs out in summer, and a $50,000 state grant to rehabilitate the building expires at the end of the year, she said.

The fate of Doughoregan Manor apparently also remains uncertain. Some members of the Carroll family submitted plans last year to preserve parts of the old plantation, including the 280-year-old mansion. Officials say family members are seeking to raise $20 million or more to repair and maintain the historic structures while preserving the bulk of the 890-acre tract - yet also want to keep the homestead in family hands and off-limits to the public.

One of the buildings said to be threatened - the modernistic former COMSAT laboratories in Montgomery County - has apparently already been saved. Although its owner, a Pennsylvania-based company, had announced plans to demolish the 1960s-era complex to make way for new homes, offices and stores, the owner agreed last month to preserve the architecturally distinctive core of the building where the nation's first commercial communications satellites were designed and built.

Anderton, Preservation Maryland's spokeswoman, said the compromise sparing the COMSAT building overtook the group's listing process. "That was happening as the list was created," she said.

Preservation Maryland received more than 30 nominations for its first listing of threatened properties, the spokeswoman said. The sites had to be important historically or culturally and in extreme jeopardy, yet still have some prospect, however difficult, of being saved, according to the group's Web site.

To Claire Albert, St. Peter's Cemetery fits that bill. The retired telephone company manager from Howard County said she has been campaigning to rehabilitate the old graveyard for three years now, after finding it so overgrown she could not locate the graves of her great-great-grandparents.

"There's about 3 or 4 acres that are cleared, and the rest is a veritable jungle," said Albert, 62. "I would have needed a machete to get to their grave sites."

Albert said she petitioned to put the cemetery on the preservation group's threatened list in hopes members of the public would volunteer time and money to help clear the site.

But McAlister, one of the caretakers, said her group first learned that the cemetery had been chosen for the list by the preservation group when a photographer from Maryland Life showed up. She said the listing was unwelcome and rescue unnecessary, especially by a bunch of weekend or one-time volunteers.

"The work is ongoing, it's being done well, and it's being done carefully, not rapidly - and it shouldn't be done rapidly," said McAlister, widow of Philip Berrigan, the former priest and longtime war protester, who is buried at St. Peter's.

McAlister said she and the other seven members of Jonah House have enlisted the help of llamas to clear the vegetation covering grave sites, by eating it. She said that the archdiocese has given the group all the support it needs for the work.

"It's not going to be done in a year or two," McAlister said of reclaiming the graveyard "This place has been left for 40 or 50 years unmaintained. There's still work, and it still requires patience and persistence, and it's happening."

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

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