Work in Progress

The Village Of Oella

Long ago, developer Charles L. Wagandt saw potential in the Baltimore County community

December 02, 2007|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun architecture critic

Since 1973, Charles L. Wagandt has been working to rehabilitate Oella, a former textile mill village in western Baltimore County that he bought after the mill closed. The picturesque village, named after the first woman to spin cotton in America, encompasses more than 70 acres along the Patapsco River and contains about 175 home sites, ranging from log cabins and modest millworkers' houses to newer waterfront dwellings. It's a time capsule of life along the Patapsco.

Wagandt is a great-grandson of mill owner William James Dickey. When his Oella Company bought the village, it lacked water and sewer service and was the butt of jokes about its lack of plumbing. Today, it's a sought-after community, with about 300 to 325 residents. All but 10 or 11 of the home sites are completed and occupied, and the mill is being converted to apartments by a separate company. For his efforts on this and other projects, Wagandt, 82, this fall received the President's Award from Preservation Maryland. He lives in Poplar Hill with his wife, Mary Jo, and two of their three children, Marianne, 28, and James, 23.

IN HIS WORDS --In 1973, I bought the mill village portion of Oella from W.J. Dickey and Sons, for whom I was working. ... The mill was sold [separately]. It took 11 years to get water and sewer here. We started the rehab in 1984 and have been working on it since then, down to today.

HIS GOALS --I had a three-pronged purpose. One was historic preservation. I wanted to preserve the architectural integrity of the streetscape. Number two, I wanted sensitive infill [development], which included a lot of clustering [of houses] to leave a lot of open space. Essentially, we were trying to do "smart growth" before the term entered the vocabulary. And third, we had a social purpose -- making it possible for people who worked at the mill and lived here for a long period of time to continue to live here under improved circumstances, with water and sewer, at rents affordable to them.

WHO LIVES IN OELLA --We have a wide assortment of people and a wide assortment of houses. You'll see some in the $200,000 range and some that would be worth around $1 million. We have some former mill workers and a lot of Ph.D.s and other assorted buyers.

WHAT'S LEFT TO DO --As tenants moved out over the years, we've upgraded units and sold them. Most of the village today is in the hands of private owners. Right now, we're working on Granite Hill, a section of Oella that has eight stone houses, two log cabins and land [for several new houses]. I would like to upgrade the community hall. ... And we're coming up on our bicentennial in 2008.

CHANGING PERCEPTIONS --At one point, no one wanted to admit they were part of Oella. Now there's a `Greater Oella,' which has about 800 houses.

OELLA'S FAMOUS OUTHOUSE --We converted it to a real estate office and promoted it as "The World's Smallest Real Estate Office." It got a fair amount of publicity. It took on a life of its own.

WHAT DRAWS PEOPLE --It's a place apart, a step back into history, but it's close to everything. ... It's not like being in a new development.

WHAT KEEPS HIM GOING --I had this concept in mind back when I bought [the village], and it's taken forever and I'm determined to see it to the end. I'm getting close to it, but it's going to be another three or four years or so. I hope to be able to say "Mission Accomplished." I don't give up easily. I believe in it, and I want to see it fulfilled.

RETIREMENT PLANS --I don't see myself retiring. Nobody knows what's going to happen to them physically, mentally. So you keep going as long as you can go.

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