An `ordinary' barn or maybe a landmark

Demolition put on hold in Green Spring Valley

November 24, 2007|By Josh Mitchell | Josh Mitchell,Sun reporter

One day this week, workers began to disassemble a red barn in Green Spring Valley. They did not get far.

Before the crew could finish removing the siding, a neighbor had called police, and Baltimore County officials ordered the work stopped, threatening a hefty fine.

The barn is, a lawyer for its owner has said, nothing special. It is, some neighbors say, a precious link to the area's past.

In Baltimore County, more than a few battles have been fought over a community's interest in preserving its history versus an individual's right to do as he pleases with his property. Now the Lystra Farm's barn - said by a historian to be 150 years old - is the subject of such a fight.

"It's one of the last vestiges of the valley, of what the valley used to be," said Rene Gunning, who lives on two acres west of Lystra Farm. "Hundreds, probably thousands, of cars go by there every day. People ask directions to our house and we say, `It's right by the big red barn,' and people say, `We know exactly where you are.'"

Four years ago, the county Landmarks Preservation Commission deemed the barn historic, placing it on a list of structures protected from demolition. But the owner objected, and a County Council member ensured that the barn did not appear on the final list approved by the council.

Last week, a neighbor re-nominated the barn for landmark status, temporarily freezing the owner's right to tear down or alter the structure.

When the dismantling began Monday, county officials issued a stop-work order and threatened - improperly, it appears - a $158,000 fine if the structure were to be demolished. (A county spokeswoman said that because of an omission in a county law, the fine really would be $200.)

The episode recalled the public outcries over the 1996 demolition of the Samuel Owings House in Owings Mills and, more recently, the Elizabeth Gardner House in Hunt Valley - both razed by their owners even as preservationists tried to save them.

"It's just a perfect example of historic preservation in Baltimore County and how it's at risk," Patricia L. Bentz, executive director of the Baltimore County Historical Trust, said of the debate over the Lystra Farm barn. "You ride by it, you think it's protected. And the next day, it's gone."

Representatives of the woman who owns the farm, including her daughter and a lawyer, declined to comment, pointing to the sensitivity of the situation. But at a preservation commission hearing in March 2003, another lawyer for the owner argued that the barn is not unique and that the historic designation would saddle the woman with the possibility of being fined for "demolition by neglect," according to minutes from the meeting.

He said then that the barn was no longer in use.

The barn is two miles outside the Beltway, near Greenspring Avenue and Greenspring Valley Road. It is in a part of the county designated a historic district by the National Register of Historic Places. Long driveways lead to stone cottages, horses graze on farms and roadways hide under lush trees.

Neighbors say the bank barn - built against a slope to allow access from the ground to two different levels - is one of the few remaining barns in Greenspring Valley.

According to research compiled by a county historian, the property was called Lystra - the name of a city in what is present-day Turkey - as early as 1802.

The land passed through the hands of multiple owners, including a Baltimore judge, and by the 1890s, a family built a bottling plant on the farm to serve their fledgling mineral-water company. The company failed, and parts of the farm were sold, according to the historian's report, included in the barn's historic landmark nomination.

Robert and Ryda Levi bought a large piece of the original farm in 1940 and a parcel that included the barn in 1948. Ryda Levi took ownership after her husband died.

Doug Carroll, a neighbor and a community organizer, said that in 2003 he offered the Levi family $1 million for the barn and the 10 acres on which it sits, in part to ensure its preservation. The family declined to sell, he said.

Carroll, who said he had been close friends with Robert Levi, said the family had voiced concerns about the barn's condition and being held liable if someone were injured as a result of the barn's falling apart.

Carroll said it would cost relatively little to fix the barn and neighbors would be willing to pitch in.

"This is what a landmark is, if ever there's a landmark," Carroll said. "There's a whole community out here who cares about this."

Also in 2003, another neighbor nominated the structure as a historic landmark. At a preservation commission hearing, a county historian detailed the barn's history and unique architectural features, including its stone foundation, location on a slope and nailed timber work in the lower level.

But a lawyer for the family contended that the barn was "ordinary."

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