Preservation preserved

Historic Towson plans second life

May 02, 2010|By Arthur Hirsch, The Baltimore Sun

Reports of the death of Historic Towson Inc. appear to have been premature.

Things looked bleak in winter for the organization launched 33 years ago by people hoping to save the distinctive architectural features of the Baltimore County seat in a world of look-alike suburbs. The group's president said the organization's active members had run out of steam, meetings were sporadic and the board was planning a vote to disband in February.

"It's time," organization president Carol Allen said early that month, sounding like someone presiding over an end-of-life decision.

But that final meeting was postponed because of the snowstorms, and by the time the 12-member board convened at the historic Rider House in late February, Allen's word had spread, and volunteers were stepping up to offer help to keep the organization alive.

"I'm encouraged," Allen said last week. "Especially with fresh faces. You get fresh ideas."

She said she heard from enough people with a range of backgrounds that she could name an acting president and acting board to serve until roughly 60 remaining dues-paying members can vote on those offices in the fall. The group's immediate plan is to meet again in May to figure out who might be available to serve and what the organization's goals will be.

Three people showed up at the meeting in late February to listen and to urge Historic Towson to hold on until reinforcements could arrive.

Among them was Shannon Sanders-McDonald, who had served as president of the organization in the early 1980s. She was teaching at a public school then, later left Maryland, earned an architecture degree at Yale, practiced in Chicago and Atlanta, published a book, and for personal reasons returned in December to the area where she was raised.

She said she told the board that she had learned from her travels that the relatively small scale and walkable space of central Towson exemplifies a "new urbanist" environment that cities such as Atlanta want to create.

"Everybody's trying to build what Towson has from scratch," she said. "I just see Towson and I say, 'Oh my God, you don't want to lose it, you don't want to lose this scale.' "

She said she could probably take Allen up on her offer to serve on the board, although she is applying for college teaching positions all over the country.

The board in February also heard from Bryan Fischer, who grew up in Timonium and recently moved to Towson. He studied historic preservation in college and told the board he's ready to help.

"I felt Historic Towson is a really important voice in terms of the broad community," said Fischer, who now works in logistics at the Aberdeen Proving Ground. "There needs to be a voice of preservation in the mix."

In Baltimore County, that voice is represented by a historical trust and a landmark commission, but neither one is focused specifically on Towson. Since incorporating in 1977, Historic Towson has conducted walking tours, recorded oral histories and compiled documentation of more than 200 historically significant buildings, not all of which have been preserved.

The group was instrumental in getting 26 homes, commercial buildings and other structures on the county's official landmarks list. The designation means that the owners can be prevented from making renovations that detract from the property's historical value. Owners can be eligible to deduct 20 percent of the value of approved renovations from county and state taxes.

That incentive often seemed inadequate to many property owners, who resisted what they considered Historic Towson's interference with their property rights. Allen said in the winter that the work of preservation has become increasingly contentious.

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