Harford owners fear for 263-year-old house

Homeowners going to court in effort to halt bridge project

July 10, 2008|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun Reporter

The Griffith House has withstood lightning, fire and the ravages of at least 263 years, but its owners say it might not outlast the onslaught of 18-wheelers rumbling past its driveway on Old Philadelphia Road in Harford County.

A $1.2 million plan to replace an old bridge with a wider one - part of the nationwide military base realignment known as BRAC - will, the owners say, bring more truck traffic past the 18th-century home.

Replacing an old bridge on Route 159 with a wider one will damage the old farmhouse, the homeowners said - and they're going to court today to try to halt the project.

About 5,600 vehicles, many of them trucks, are using the road each day, according to state highway officials. They're apparently heading to the dozens of warehouses in the area or to nearby Aberdeen Proving Ground, which is to expand by 10,000 jobs in coming years.

"The increased weight limit, more traffic, the higher speeds, the constant noise could all be too much for this house," said Jay Wright, the third generation of his family to own the home.

"Why can't they replace the bridge at the same size?"

The government is pouring money into many federal and state roads projects, including this bridge, to accommodate BRAC.

State highway officials say the bridge is not near enough to the house to affect it structurally. Nor are the officials impressed with its historic designation. The house was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.

In court papers filed in Harford County, state officials said, "The designation as a historic place should not be confused with the National Historic Landmark designation of national significant properties, including Monticello and Mount Vernon. The Griffith House is not a National Historic Landmark."

A hearing to try to stop the bridge construction is scheduled for this afternoon in Harford County Circuit Court in Bel Air.

Traffic has been detoured for the past few weeks as the State Highway Administration replaces the 83-year-old bridge over Cranberry Run. The new bridge will have two lanes, each with 4-foot shoulders.

"There is no reason to believe a widened bridge will increase truck traffic," said David Buck, spokesman for the State Highway Administration. "We are simply bringing it up to 2008 standards."

Griffith House, surrounded by stately walnut trees and hollies, sits on 12 acres overlooking Cranberry Run, less than two miles from the Army post main gate.

Wright would like to restore the two-story home with its gambrel roof, built about 1745, but "I can't see doing that with unbearable truck traffic."

"It truly evokes the 18th century," said Cherilyn Widell, a historic preservation consultant and former California state historic preservation officer.

Wright's attorney hired Widell to prepare a report on the historic value of Griffith House. She plans to attend today's hearing.

Intact properties from that era are increasingly rare in the United States, she said. The fact that Griffith House is sitting next to a roadway of the same era makes it even more unusual, she said.

Old Philadelphia Road was a postal pike that carried mail from Philadelphia to the Carolinas.

The state is rebuilding the one-lane bridge for structural and safety reasons, Buck said.

"The condition and age of this bridge are driving this project," Buck said. "It will also have an impact on BRAC, a residual positive effect, because it is right in the BRAC area."

The state will contend that the bridge was designed to serve the safety needs of existing traffic and is not reasonably expected to encourage any additional traffic, officials said.

It is yet another case of history colliding with demands of the 21st century, said Widell.

About two miles away on Old Philadelphia Road, Poplar Hill, another Colonial home, is surrounded by a Wal-Mart and railroad tracks. Efforts to give the home to anyone willing to move it have failed, and it may fall victim to APG's expansion.

"The fact is that Griffith House is on the national register, and that alone should protect it," Widell said. "It has a long history that dates to the Revolutionary War. Unlike Poplar Hill, its setting has not changed. Obviously, increased traffic will affect all that."

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

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