Dorchester house free to good home

Nearly century-old structure needs to be moved from site of Harriet Tubman park

April 13, 2009|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,scott.calvert@baltsun.com

CHURCH CREEK -The rabbit had expired in the living room next to the wood stove. As any real estate agent can tell you, animal remains are a little like cluttered dens and ugly wallpaper. They don't show well.

"Probably not the best selling point," Jordan Loran noted as he carried the carcass to the back door of the state-owned Linthicum House in Dorchester County.

Not that the house is up for sale, exactly. Loran's employer, the State of Maryland, would actually be delighted to give it away, free, to anyone willing to relocate the rundown yet solid three-story structure. An open house is set for April 21; proposals are due May 5.

The nearly 100-year-old house needs to make way for the planned Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park and Discovery Center. The center will tell the story of Tubman, an escaped slave who in the 1850s led dozens from bondage through a network of safe houses on the Eastern Shore.

A freebie house might sound appealing in these economic times, especially when you consider its seven bedrooms, 10-foot ceilings and 3,400 square feet of space. But an asterisk the size of a tractor wheel should be appended to "free." Moving the house would require sliding steel beams underneath and hoisting it, gently, onto a truck. Just taking it several miles down the road could run $40,000.

And that's before the tricky makeover that would follow, including the need to deal with any lead paint and asbestos. This isn't for bargain-hunters. It's for old-house lovers with the passion and patience to tackle the type of rehabs that test marriages.

Ranger Steve McCoy of the Maryland Park Service joined Loran recently for a top-to-bottom tour. From the outset, McCoy stressed the importance of being clear-eyed about the cost: "It's not going to save them money in the long run."

Still, he and Loran, the director of engineering and construction at the Department of Natural Resources, hope to find a taker. Otherwise, the department will consider bids to salvage the pine floors, oak banisters and other interior touches.

"If we didn't think there was any chance for the house to be moved," Loran said, "we wouldn't have advertised it."

So far, a few people have expressed interest. One man sounded serious, though he told Loran he'd like to be talked out of his "foolishness." That man, it turns out, is descended from W. Alvin Linthicum, who built the house about 1915 only to die four years later.

Linthicum was a farmer and logger with deep family roots on the Shore. He was a son of Jeremiah Linthicum, grandson of J. Zachariah Linthicum and great-grandson of Capt. R. Richard Linthicum, born 24 years before the Declaration of Independence.

In the late 1960s, the 17-acre property was sold. And in 1992, the federal government bought it as part of the nearby Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. Two years ago, the state acquired the parcel in a land swap with the federal government.

The house sits off Route 335 in Church Creek, 10 miles from Cambridge. Architects call it an "expanded foursquare," a bigger version of a boxy style popular around the country.

From the road, the house has a vaguely spooky aura. Maybe it's that the siding has turned dark and moldy-looking, or that strands of yellow "caution" tape flutter on the wraparound porch. Or maybe it's just the knowledge that this house has been uninhabited for years.

Loran and McCoy led the way through the back door into the kitchen. An old clothes washer remains. So does an ancient fridge with a Servel Electrolux label. Adding to the eeriness, empty glass jars line the pantry shelves, as if someone went off to work one day and never returned.

The kitchen opens to the living room, where that rabbit breathed its last. Not far from the wood stove is a china hutch, along with ratty couches and glass display cases left by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Those cases are likely to be removed, but otherwise the house is available "as is."

"Despite its outward appearance," Loran said admiringly, "it's in good shape."

It does feel sturdy, a sense reinforced by climbing either of two staircases. The second floor is expansive, with four bedrooms and big closets, but, alas, one bathroom. Most rooms are dark because the state boarded up the windows. (In a nod to aesthetics, crews painted the boards to resemble windows.)

In the faint light, beds are visible in some rooms, as is a gas lamp fixture in a hallway.

The third floor is brighter, where the windows have been left uncovered. One pane has shattered, which explains the bird's nest on a wall. Wasps called mud daubers have been squatting in their mud abodes.

In one room, there's a straw mattress. In another, there's a yellowed issue of The Sun from Feb. 16, 1947. Everywhere, on all levels of the house, bits of plaster and broken glass crumple underfoot. And yet, you can still bang out a haunting note or two on the upright piano in the formal parlor.

One way or another, the Linthicum House has to go soon. The state plans to put the Tubman park visitor center in its place. The Linthicum tract was chosen because it's near two places Tubman reportedly lived. And the vista looks much as it did, perhaps, 150 years ago when she guided fleeing slaves north through the woods and swamps.

Only the house seems out of place, though not for much longer.

For more information, call Jordan Loran at 410-260-8907 , or visit www.dnr.maryland.gov/ec/download/Linthicum_House_RFP.pdf

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