Change encroaches, but Linthicum house from 1800s remains

Property dating to 1800s still inhabited despite being surrounded by commerce

March 12, 2011|By Don Markus , The Baltimore Sun

The three-story house, built right after the Civil War, could have been swallowed up long ago by the office parks, airport hotels and chain restaurants that have sprouted along West Nursery Road in Linthicum over the past 30 years.

But even as the heavy machinery inches closer, and a new office building is being erected nearby, the home remains, overlooking the remnants of what was once a 400-acre homestead called Lockwood's Adventure.

The anachronistic home, which has belonged to Myrtle Sachs and her family for more than 60 years, is something of a mystery for those passing through the industrial area surrounding Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.

"Everyone is always asking, but we don't know much," said Stephanie Hobbs, who works as a hostess at a Bob Evans restaurant across the street from the house. "Sometimes we tell them it's Bob Evans' farm."

In reality, it was once Basil Benson's farm, and it extended all the way to the Patapsco River when Benson built the house in 1868. While it wasn't the largest home in the area, the original design was considered grander and more intricate than nearly all the nearby homes at the time.

"I think it was the most impressive," said Skip Booth, president of the Ann Arundell County Historical Society. "It looked like a London townhome. It made for a very distinctive house."

The house is protected from demolition because of its stature as a state historical landmark, said Darian Schwab, the county's historic sites planner. Schwab said he hopes that the Sachs family, who did not want to be interviewed, will remain.

According to Booth, the house on the hill was built on what eventually became, like many properties in its day, a truck farm that used to grow and transport fruits and vegetables to sell in markets in and around Baltimore.

The truck farming business boomed after the Civil War, Booth said. Since the farm owners in the area lived mostly off the land, the farmworkers were paid in brass tokens to be exchanged later for cash and used to buy goods in Baltimore.

It was also the property, Booth said, where scores of local residents gathered to watch the Great Baltimore Fire in 1904 because it had the highest elevation in the county.

"There were very few trees between there and Baltimore City, it was mostly farmland, so you could see straight into Baltimore," Booth said recently.

Booth can pinpoint the date -- June 23, 1908 –--when the first glimpse of the future arrived. It came when the five college-educated sons of Sweetser Linthicum, the great-great-grandsons of the town's founder, decided to sell off parcels of their father's property for residential development. It became one of Maryland's first subdivisions.

Booth referred to Lockwood as a "endangered species," pointing out that another historic property, the Summerfield Benson House on the other side of West Nursery, was demolished in 2006. That brick house was built around the turn of the 20th century.

Even the Benson Hammond House, which is the only historical building in the world located on the grounds of an international airport, was nearly destroyed. According to Booth, it was sold to the state when the airport was being constructed and actually sits on the outer perimeter of the airport grounds. For years it sat in disrepair behind a high chain-link and barbed-wire fence.

"The airport used it for storage," recalled Booth, who had a childhood friend who grew up in the house. "The addition on the back of the house fell off. It was open to the elements. It was really sad. I remember driving by it routinely on my way to the airport and watching the sadness as it deteriorated, as a lot of people did."

In the mid-1970s, the county's Historical Society leased the house from the state and began restoring it.

"The goal was to have a museum to show how the northern Anne Arundel County truck farms operated," Booth said. "By the mid-'80s, the house was restored to what you see today."

One longtime county resident empathizes with the Sachs family's decision to remain in the home despite the development surrounding it -- with a highway on one side and a division of Northrop-Grumman on the other. John Stoll wishes he'd had the same choice.

In 1969, Stoll learned that a state road was to be built as part of plans to extend the Baltimore Beltway to the Key Bridge. To do so, the 100-year-old house that Stoll had lived in since childhood would be demolished.

Stoll had a choice – either accept the state's offer of $8,300 an acre remarkable or lose the entire 42-acre property, with the state claiming eminent domain.

"They give you what at the time looks like a lot of money and it doesn't amount to nothing right now," said Stoll, who is about to turn 93 and lives nearby in a house that was built around 1910.

Stoll took the money and moved, something many of the owners of the nearly 150 farms did back in the mid-1940s when the Baltimore wanted to buy their properties in order to build Friendship Airport -- now BWI-Marshall.

Despite an offer that reached $1,000 an acre, there were protests and lawsuits that went on even after ground was broken on the first runway in 1947. Shots were fired at surveyors.

Eventually, the houses were either moved or destroyed.

Anne Arundel County Councilman Daryl Jones said he hopes the Sachs home would become a museum should the family decide to move. Jones said the juxtaposition of the modern construction with the Lockwood property "reminds us how far we've come."

Others agree on the importance of preserving the home, whether it's occupied or not.

"Buildings are tangible," Schwab said. "You can read about history in books, but something like this you can see in front of you. I think it's important to preserve the county's heritage."

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