Towson preservationists call it quits

Group was formed in 1977 to save historic buildings

February 12, 2010|By Arthur Hirsch | Baltimore Sun reporter

Thirty-three years ago, a group of volunteers gathered at a 19th-century stone church not far from Baltimore's expanding suburban shopping hub, in the shadow of new office buildings, to form an organization they called Historic Towson Inc. It represented an earnest effort to spare the seat of Baltimore County government a future as Any Suburb, U.S.A.

After decades of running largely on faith, advocating historical preservation while angering many property owners, group members now plan to call it quits.

"It's time," said Carol Allen, president of the organization for 10 years. "It's sad, but I'm proud of what we did. We did make a difference for the Towson community."

The group claims about 60 dues-paying members, but the number who are active is much smaller, and "the core is getting tired of doing all the work," Allen said. Regular board meetings were becoming less regular, and it seemed clear that Historic Towson had run its course.

"I think there's going to be consensus" at the next board meeting, Allen said. That session has been canceled once because of bad weather and has not yet been rescheduled. The 12-member board is expected to vote to disband and decide what to do with leftover funds of about $10,000 to $13,000.

The money is the least of what remains of the effort that began when the organization was formed in June 1977 and officially incorporated as a nonprofit two months later. The group conducted a survey of more than 200 historically significant buildings, producing photographs and documents that are now part of the collection of the Maryland Historical Trust. Members recorded about 20 oral histories and, perhaps most significantly, helped put more properties on the county's official landmarks list.

Historic Towson led efforts to have 26 homes, commercial buildings and other structures put on the landmarks list, and lent support for listing many others. The list now shows 369 properties.

Patricia Bentz, executive director of the Baltimore County Historical Trust, said Historic Towson is one of several groups of its kind, but it "probably has been one of the most active ... outside of the Trust."

She gave the group credit for putting a professional architectural surveyor to work on a historical inventory in the late 1970s, an effort paid for with state and county grants and fundraising.

When Historic Towson formed, a year after the U.S. bicentennial had raised historical awareness - and, with it, anxiety about lost architectural heritage - the Baltimore County Historical Trust had not yet been incorporated, and the county's Landmarks Commission had only just been created.

That first meeting in the parish house at Trinity Episcopal Church on Allegheny Avenue was organized by the church rector at the time, the Rev. Kingsley Smith. He recalled the other day that he was among those residents growing increasingly concerned about development.

"More and more buildings were being torn down," said Smith. "We were losing our definitive look, just becoming another suburb. ... The built environment has a tone here that is marked clearly by the number of handsome older buildings still standing."

He was sitting in Towson Hot Bagels on Allegheny Avenue, hardly a historical site. But across the street, many buildings remain from the late 19th century, including those housing the Grillo & Co. jewelry store and the Joseph S. Parker Co. grocery.

These are not listed as landmarks, but they represent elements of what Historic Towson was hoping to preserve by making applications for landmark listings, and by trying to promote local history through walking tours, lectures and programs in cooperation with county schools.

The consciousness-raising portion of the mission was less controversial than the efforts to have properties listed with the county's Landmarks Preservation Commission. Owners of historic properties were often less than enthusiastic, Smith said, feeling that they "don't want some bureaucrat telling [them] what to do."

Once a property is listed - the designation has to be approved by the commission and the County Council - owners can be prevented from making renovations that detract from the historical value of the property. As an incentive for the landmark listing, owners can be eligible to deduct 20 percent of the value of approved renovations from county and state taxes, Bentz said.

That usually wasn't enough to sweeten the deal, Allen said. Asked how many property owners fought the organization's efforts, she said, "I'd say almost all of them."

Among those structures members championed were buildings at Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital, the Maryland and Pennsylvania Railroad bridge abutments at York Road and Towsontown Boulevard, the Baltimore County Bank and the old Towson High School.

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