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Capturing a county's past

It was seven decades ago this summer that McGrain snapped his first picture.

The year John McGrain started taking pictures, his hometown of Towson was a mostly rural community north of Baltimore. A railroad line that boasted a steam engine ran a busy route between his neighborhood and York, Pa. His first camera, a used Brownie, cost $1.

Today, a million-square-foot mall and dozens of restaurants anchor downtown. The rush hour resembles that of nearby cities. And McGrain captures the sights and structures of the Baltimore County seat with a $500 digital Nikon.

A self-taught photographer, historian, author and connoisseur of local architecture, McGrain, 84, has spent 70 years photographing a Baltimore County he loves, but says is rapidly disappearing.

"I've been documenting buildings and events with this vague sense of gloom about the ongoing destruction of what was so interesting, and so familiar," he says. "I hope I'm leaving something useful behind."

McGrain is well-known among the preservationists and historians who keep an eye on the heritage and condition of the infrastructure in and around Baltimore.

His small-press books have chronicled the history of Oella, the former mill town near Catonsville ("Oella: Its Thread of History," 1976), and the life and lore of Charles Street, the 11-mile throughway that has linked Baltimore City and Towson since 1927 ("Charles Street.: Baltimore's Artery of Elegance," 2012).

"John has been an invaluable resource to historic preservation not only in Baltimore County, but throughout the state, with his thematic studies through film and text, from streetcars and train stations to pig iron and elegance," says Patricia Bentz, executive director of the nonprofit Preservation Alliance of Baltimore County.

It was seven decades ago this summer that McGrain snapped his first picture.

The Historical Society of Baltimore County commemorated the occasion one recent weekend by inviting McGrain, a soft-spoken but dryly funny storyteller, to share his pictures at its Cockeysville headquarters.

For McGrain, the milestone has meant an opportunity to reflect — and not just on 70 years of shooting, but on county history that long predates his time behind the lens.

On a rainy recent morning, McGrain, clad in a grandfatherly blue sweater, sat in the living room of his clapboard house on Willow Avenue, dozens of black-and-whites spread on the card table beside him.

They tell of a Towson gone by, but with contours that remain: streetcars on York Road, a summer parade where the Towson public library now stands, a clapboard grocery at what is now the busy roundabout beside Towson Town Center.

It doesn't hurt that he's a part of Towson history himself.

His great-grandfather, also named John McGrain, immigrated from Ireland to the United States during the Civil War. For reasons now lost to time, he made his way to Towson, then a rustic community used by the wealthy set as a country retreat.

That first John McGrain scored a job as farm manager of Aigburth Vale, the 200-acre estate of the English-born comic actor John E. Owen.

Though the current John McGrain reveres history, he also delights in the quirks of its characters.

"My great-grandfather was an illiterate Irish immigrant who struck it lucky," he says, and laughs.

Owen's mansion is now a retirement home on Aigburth Road, and Towson High School stands on part of the old property. (Owen named the place after Aigburth, a district in his hometown of Liverpool.)

A mile or so north, in 1883, the elder McGrain built a modest Gothic Revival-style home on a hillside above York Road, complete with pig sty, privy and backyard well.

It stayed in the family through the generations, eventually passing on to McGrain's father, John E. McGrain III, a U.S. Customs agent, who moved his wife and two children there in 1943.

The fourth John McGrain (he goes, somewhat confusingly, by "junior") has lived in the house ever since.

It's a block and a half from a congested stretch of York Road, but it sits on a plot so wooded and quiet that it might as well be a farmhouse.

"You can still live pleasantly here," he says. "I have rabbits, squirrels and foxes visiting all the time. Last week a vulture came into the yard. I didn't have time to get my camera."

Since the summer of 1946, he has rarely had that problem.

McGrain mentions the first photo he took, at the age of 14: a shot of the Baltimore County Courthouse, complete with the cannon and cannonballs that still grace the courtyard.

It's one of the few prints he hasn't kept, but recalling it uncorks a spate of anecdotes.

In the first few years of the 20th century, a local politician used his Navy connections to score a Spanish-made cannon that had been used in the Philippines in a conflict that had nothing to do with Towson: the Spanish-American War.

The city fathers dedicated it at the Courthouse in 1903, on the fifth anniversary of the Battle of Manila Bay, in a triumphant ceremony.

"We wanted a cannon," McGrain says. "We got a cannon."

The cannonballs beside it actually date from the Civil War, he adds, and are too large to fit inside. But they did have a moment in the sun when a bunch of kids stole them, placed them in the metal grooves that guided the city's trolley cars, and rolled them down York Road.

"I saw an article about that in The Jeffersonian," he says.

A love of history gets in your blood, McGrain says, much like a passion for the O's or Ravens, and as a teen and young adult, it drove him and his cameras to the many sites he could reach on foot.

There are his black-and-whites of a grade crossing on the old Maryland and Pennsylvania Railroad (1947); a greenhouse at the Ridgely Estate, now the Hampton National Historic Site (1949); Corbin's store, a grocery that stood at what is now the traffic roundabout at York and East Joppa roads (1950); and a train buried in snow at the old Towson railroad station (1958).

If the images lack the striking tones of his photographic idols, Edward Weston and Ansel Adams, they bring history to life.

That grade crossing of the long-defunct Ma and Pa stood in one of the two mostly African-American sections of town. The greenhouse, which once held the flower collection of the wealthy Ridgely family, had been tended by some of their 60 slaves.

Corbin's housed a one-room barbershop many remember. And the snow on the train? It came down in a blizzard that crippled the area in 1958.

"It's very important that John has documented so much of our disappearing county, the way it was in the past for many of us," says Jim Long, a Baltimore County historical society official.

McGrain spent years as a technical writer and editor before landing what amounted to his dream job in 1976 as a historic sites planner for the newly formed Baltimore County Landmark Preservation Commission.

He beefed up his photo collection over the next 30 years, on the job and off, as he researched building titles, inspected structures, compiled lists of sites he believed should be classified as protected, and battled developers.

His successor, Teri Rising, says McGrain's "decades of research and survey documentation have been the foundation of [a] program which continues to benefit researchers and historians all over the world."

She said McGrain's continued support in the job is "something I treasure."

Not that it has all been fun. McGrain's outlook on the future of historic buildings is bleak.

He traces what he calls the "great assault on Towson" to 1950, when developers razed the early 19th-century Epsom Chapel, the town's first house of worship, to make way for a Hutzler's department store.

The process has only accelerated since, McGrain says, as Towson has lost everything from the Masonic Lodge at Chesapeake and Washington avenues (built in 1865 with its High Victorian towers, turrets and corbeled brick, it was razed in 1970), to the leafy lanes of Susquehanna Avenue (long since absorbed into Towsontown Boulevard).

"Now we're just getting the same tired old architecture that has been used in office parks again and again — nothing new or interesting."

The decline has sapped none of McGrain's enthusiasm.

His Cockeysville speech might have been his last, he says, but he has other projects in the works, including a pictorial history of mills across the state. Bentz's group is applying for grants to fund production of a film, "The Mills That Built Maryland," based on McGrain's books, papers and photographs.

It will add to a body of work that weaves his hometown's past and present together.

One day he'll leave a portion of that work to the county historical society, another to special collections at the Maryland State Archives.

In the meantime, McGrain sounds sad but satisfied with the project of a lifetime.

"It's a portrait of things we captured before they disappeared," he says. "It's a portrait of changing times."

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

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