By Bob Allen
6:00 AM EST, February 12, 2013
Often, during the long months he spent restoring Wilson's Inheritance, a 180-year-old brick farmhouse near Union Bridge, Jon Herman and his small construction crew would come across messages and mementos left behind by the house's former owner.
From time to time, while ripping up old flooring or replacing plumbing fixtures, Herman and his crew would find old photos, articles and other documents that Dr. Emil White had carefully tucked away in hidden recesses.
White was a celebrated biochemist, author and longtime Johns Hopkins University professor, who died in 1999.
Some of the articles the crew found were about his awards and scientific achievements. There were other, less obvious, keepsakes, as well. One was a picture of a wolf howling from a ridgeline with the simple handwritten inscription, "Lone Wolf."
"He left me stuff, or at least he left this stuff, knowing it would be found when someone eventually restored the house," Herman said.
The care Herman and his crew took during their work at Wilson's Inheritance earned Herman Construction a 2013 Maryland Preservation Award for Excellence in Residential Rehabilitation from the Maryland Historical Trust.
The trust selected 10 projects, organizations and individuals for its annual awards, which recognize historic preservation and heritage education projects in the state. The awards were presented Jan. 31 in Annapolis.
"Each award highlights an important and unique aspect of historic preservation, and the important and powerful ways that historic places can impact our lives and communities" said Charles Edson, chairman of the Historical Trust's board of trustees.
Built in 1832, Wilson's Inheritance is a classic brick farmhouse that has suffered for many years from deferred maintenance. The house has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places by the U.S. Department of the Interior as an example of the distinctive characteristics of early-to-mid-19th century life in Piedmont Maryland, according to the register's website.
It seemed to Herman that White, who lived by himself on the 120-acre farm for more than 40 years, didn't want to be forgotten. Apparently, that's also why he put his estate in a trust before he died, with a directive to posthumously restore the house he loved so much.
"Here was a guy who'd achieved international success in biochemistry, who didn't have any children or real close family, who wanted to leave some sort of a legacy," Herman said.
White lived a celebrated, if solitary, life.
The former D. Mead Johnson professor of chemistry at Johns Hopkins University taught at that institution for 43 years. Before coming to Hopkins in 1955, he taught at Yale for several years.
During his career, he authored several textbooks and chemistry treatises. He is perhaps best known for synthesizing the protein luciferin — the protein which enables fireflies to produce light.
White also was an avid, and eclectic, collector of art and antiques. By all accounts, he kept his house so crammed full of treasures that any sort of renovation would have been difficult, if not impossible, during his lifetime.
Herman said he began to get a sense of the man from the mementos he found tucked away in walls and crawl spaces of the building on Green Valley Road.
"In a way, it was sad, because I think he wanted someone to know what he had done," said Herman, who has rehabbed numerous other historic properties, including Cockey's Tavern, in Westminster.
"It's kind of sad and kind of funny and sort of poetic. It's all those things," he said.
Herman's construction company was hired by White's estate several years ago to renovate the property, which also includes a large pond, a sprawling barn and various other outbuildings.
Despite White's deep attachment to Wilson's Inheritance, Herman said White was not much on maintenance and let most of the buildings on the farm run down to one extent or another.
But the three-story, L-shaped classic brick farmhouse and its slate roof were still structurally sound.
Even better, according to Herman, the house, during its long life, hadn't been "re-muddled" with the sort of tacky, do-it-yourself style of home improvements that often unwittingly damage or destroy a building's historic integrity.
"The biggest challenge was with the site of the house itself," said Herman, who is also involved in rehabbing the historic brick buildings at Sykesville's Warfield Complex, which were once part of Springfield State Hospital Center.
"The house (at Wilson's Inheritance) was built in a low-lying area, almost next to a stream, which was pretty common back in 1832 when it was built, since settlers wanted to be close to water and have a springhouse," he said.
The result, Herman explained, was an excessive amount of moisture in the soil around and under the foundation.
"Because it's a brick house, the water wicks up into the brick walls and the plaster, and it rots everything that it touches," he added.
This was remediated with gutters and downspouts tied into a drainage system, which diverted water away from the house and into a nearby stream. It also involved installing drain tiles, sump pumps and a radiant heating system in the basement floor to drain and evaporate any residual moisture.
The award is not the first time the company has been recognized, according to its website. Herman Construction received a 2001 Howard County Historic Preservation Award in 2001, a Historic Preservation Award from Baltimore Heritage in 1996 for its work on a Baltimore property and a National Historic Trust Preservation Award in 1996 for its exterior rehabilitation of Bloomfield, in Sykesville.
"It was a great opportunity," Herman said of the Wilson's Inheritance project. "The circumstances allowed me to do what I like to do and what I do best, and it was very satisfying to be able to help Emil White achieve his dream.
"In fact, we even used to joke that he was one of the best bosses we ever had," Herman added with a smile, "because, other than leaving us those hidden messages, he didn't bother us at all."