Old Ellicott City post office to become tourism center

October 03, 2007|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Sun reporter

John Robinson has been driving past the 67-year-old stone building on historic Ellicott City's Main Street for years, he said, before he made a happy discovery several weeks ago.

"It's really a post office, with no lines," he said, standing alone at a clerk's window. "This is my second time in here. I thought it was an [unused] historic building or something."

But Robinson's joy might be short-lived. During his visit Monday, the 53-year-old Ellicott City resident learned that the building is to be sold to Howard County for conversion to a larger tourism office, which is why he had to wend his way through a crowd of politicians and news reporters in front of the 1940 building to get inside.

A modern, much larger postal facility -- sometimes with long lines of customers -- serves Ellicott City on Ridge Road near U.S. 40, about a mile away.

County Executive Ken Ulman announced that the county is preparing to buy the building, which this year was added to Preservation Howard County's top 10 list of endangered historic buildings, for $640,000, if inspections show no wildly expensive repairs are needed.

Ulman said the county Department of Public Works could defer some small projects and absorb the cost in its current budget.

"I think it's great to move it off the endangered list," said Mary Catherine Cochran, president of Preservation Howard County. "Tourism is a great partner."

Ulman said he didn't want the county to "buy a building for $640,000 that ends up being a $10 million project," but clearly he is excited about acquiring the structure.

Inside, the walls are adorned with two large hand-painted murals depicting early transportation modes that date from 1942.

Elevated catwalk

Behind the thick interior walls, Ulman said, is an enclosed elevated catwalk where post office supervisors could tread silently on thick padded carpets and view their employees toiling below though narrow slits in the wall.

The building is on the Maryland Inventory of Historic Properties, and Ulman said that although a plan for its future would have to be developed if the April 1 purchase date is met, an automated postal kiosk and some post office boxes could remain to serve the local community.

"There could be conference room space, maybe a recreation and parks office," he said. "I want it to be a comforting, welcoming place."

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, whose district covers Ellicott City, also attended the announcement. He rents a small field office in the building, for which Ulman joked the county would be happy to negotiate a new lease.

James M. Irvin, county public works director, said the county has been pushing federal postal officials for years to repair the solidly built but aging building or to sell it. After a recent preliminary inspection, Irvin said, "things are looking good," aside from some water leakage problems that might portend roof repairs.

State Sen. James N. Robey, a Democrat and Ulman's predecessor as county executive, said he tried since 2003 to get the federal government to move, and he is happy to see progress, though he might have to give up the campaign post office box he has rented for a decade inside.

Robey's son, Wayne, a county court clerk who is also his treasurer, walks from the nearby courthouse to get mail, but the inconvenience of moving the box would be minor, Senator Robey said. "There's no sense having [another] one right up the street."

Republican Del. Gail H. Bates also represents the area and said that although "it is a beautiful building and a great location," she couldn't say she favors the purchase yet because "I don't know the details" and whether the building might have some "environmental concerns."

County Councilwoman Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat, had a different perspective.

`Critical piece'

"It's a really critical piece to Main Street," she said. "It's an opportunity we couldn't really pass up."

No one is more excited about the purchase than Rachelina Bonacci, the county's tourism director, whose office is now a cramped, leaky basement space in the rear of the post office building, facing the driveway to a parking lot.

Moving upstairs to the main space facing Main Street would give her operation more than a one-third increase in space and vastly improved access to the public.

"We're always pleasantly surprised folks can find us around the corner," she said about her current space. The main rooms of the post office would be "the perfect spot for us."


Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.