Endangered historic treasures

Preservation group releases list of 10 key sites

August 17, 2008|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,Special to the Sun

In the eight years that Preservation Howard County has been compiling its list of the top 10 endangered historic sites, some places have been saved, some have been razed and some have seen little change at all.

Still, group leaders say, it is worthwhile every year to highlight historic treasures that could be lost without proper intervention.

"The response we get from the public ... continues to show there is an interest in having this type of list brought to the attention of citizens of Howard County," said Fred Dorsey, second vice president of the nonprofit volunteer organization.

This year's list includes two additions: the Ellicott City jail in that town's historic district and the Sykesville South Branch recreational area. Both properties are owned by the county government.

A third property, the Mount Hebron stone barn, returns to the list after being removed last year. It is on the site of a planned residential development in Ellicott City.

The rest of the 2008 top 10 sites appeared on last year's list, including three historic manor houses, one farmhouse, two Columbia buildings designed by architect Frank Gehry, the U.S. Post Office in Ellicott City and the community of Highland.

The Ellicott City jail is making its first appearance on the list because, Dorsey said, citizens expressed concerns about the condition of the building, which was built in 1878 and has unusual Romanesque revival style.

"People thought it needed to have a place with the other historic sites in Ellicott City, that it could be a good addition to the tours given [there]," Dorsey said.

James M. Irvin, director of public works for Howard County, said there have been discussions over the years about possible uses for the jail, part of which is being used for storage by the county sheriff's office. But nothing is being considered at this time, he said.

"The big issue would be the financial aspect," he said, because much work would be needed to make the building appropriate for visitors to enter.

Irvin said his office is committed to preserving the historic character of county properties, and he is unsure why the jail and the Ellicott City Post Office appear on the list.

In the case of the latter, a contract is being negotiated for the county to purchase the building from the U.S. Postal Service, Irvin said. County officials are making plans to use it for a welcome center and tourism office.

Dorsey said the post office remained on the list because plans for its future are not finalized. PHC wants to keep attention on the historic nature of the building and two murals inside, which were painted in 1942 as part of a public works program during World War II.

The Sykesville South Branch recreational area is another case where PHC wants to use the list to lend support to restoration efforts.

Dorsey said the area was the original site of Sykesville, before a flood in the late 1800s led the town to relocate across the Patapsco River in Carroll County. Six structures, including a brick warehouse, a wood water tank and a stone house, remain on 7.3 acres but are quickly deteriorating.

The town of Sykesville has signed a 25-year lease with Howard County to use the park area, according to John Byrd, chief of the county Bureau of Parks and Program Services. Sykesville leaders are creating a master plan to improve the location that serves as a gateway to that community, Byrd said.

The stone barn at Mount Hebron in Ellicott City was removed from the list in 2007 after being added in 2006 because no action seemed imminent to save it from being demolished to make way for a housing development.

Dorsey said PHC "jumped at the chance" to put it back on the list this year when it found out Howard County's planning director is helping the developer seek a buyer for the property.

Jason Van Kirk, project manager for Elm Street Development, said he would be happy to sell the property to someone who would restore it as a residence on site.

"If [the list] helps to generate a potential person who wants to rehabilitate the barn, then great," he said.

The entry for the Gehry buildings has been changed a little from 2007 to focus on the entire Columbia Lakefront promenade with the former Rouse Co. headquarters building and the Columbia Exhibit Center. The lakefront is an iconic element of Columbia, according to the preservation group, and the 40-year-old buildings are considered significant for their architect and their place in Columbia's history.

The buildings are owned by General Growth Properties Inc. and their future will be decided as part of an effort to create a master plan to redevelop Columbia Town Center.

The community of Highland also joined the list last year. Members of the Greater Highlands Crossroads Association have raised concerns about zoning provisions that are allowing substantial building in the rural community at Routes 108 and 216 to preserve land farther west.

Completing the list are several perennial favorites of the preservation community.

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