Cockeysville family fights historical designation

A Cockeysville family is fighting to keep its 160-year-old house off the county's Historic Landmark List after a local community association nominated the property over the family's objections.

Last fall, the Baltimore County Landmark Preservation Committee placed Melrose Farm, at 29 Ashland Road, on its Preliminary Landmarks List on the grounds that the property is connected to the Cockey family, for whom the area is named, and also played a role in the area's Civil War history.

But Lawrence Schmidt, attorney for homeowner and Cockey descendant Christopher Cromwell, disagrees with the inclusion, and at an Aug. 1 County Council meeting said the property doesn't meet the five criteria for county historic landmarks.

"Old doesn't mean historic," Schmidt said. "It has to have some kind of historic significance. That's what the law says, and we don't believe it does."

Now, the decision rests with 3rd District Councilman Todd Huff and the County Council, which must either support the preservation committee's decision and make Melrose Farm a historical landmark or respect the homeowner's wishes and leave it off the list.

The Baltimore County Historical Trust planned to submit Melrose Farm for consideration as a historic site last summer, but held off after learning the family opposed it. But, the Ashland Community Association submitted the nomination on its own in August 2010.

The property was discussed before the preservation committee Oct. 14 and Nov. 9 of last year, and according to the minutes, Schmidt said the family did not object to the structures being nominated — as long as the entire property wasn't included as part of a "Historic Environmental Setting."

But last week, Schmidt said the minutes are inaccurate and don't tell the full story. According to Schmidt, that position was suggested as a compromise, but any hope for a deal was killed when the committee voted to include 6.27 acres in the historical setting.

The historic designation would subject any development or work on the house and surrounding property to review by the preservation committee.

However, the Cromwell family and the Ashland Community Association are eight years into a 30-year, no-development covenant.

At the council meeting, Cromwell pledged his future to the house, noting that the designation would negatively affect the property value for his children, not himself.

"At this point in my life," Cromwell said, "I'm committed to staying there. But I have no plans to sell or develop the property.

"I love my old house," he said. "I don't want to see anything happen to the house, either, but it should be my decision and not someone else's."

Civil disagreement

Melrose was voted onto the preliminary list based on its association with the Cockey family and the development of the Cockeysville community, its agricultural history and its association with the Civil War, as well as an example of the "telescope" style of architecture and 19th-century stone and brick construction.

To sway the council against the designation, the family is refuting many of the claims included in a historical report prepared by Teri Rising, historic preservation planner for the county Office of Planning.

Josias Cromwell, Christopher Cromwell's brother and a resident of Sparks, acknowledges that he, his mother and the aunts from whom the house was inherited are all direct descendants of Joshua Cockey, but said "no one of importance" in the Cockey family ever lived at the house.

In addition, the nominating document suggests that the stone portion of the house was "probably built in 1740 by Joshua F. Cockey." But Rising's report said that claim is difficult to verify, and that architectural records suggest Peter F. Cockey built the main part of the house between 1832 and 1860.

Christopher Cromwell's father added a kitchen and two porches in the 1960s, which the current owners say diminish the historical integrity of the house.

But perhaps most critical is the disagreement over the property's Civil War significance.

In 1861, a Sun newspaper article titled "The Pennsylvania Troops at Cockeysville" placed 2,500 Union troops camping on "the property of Mr. Peter Cockey, a man of wealth and understood to be a unionist."

That incident occurred in the early stages of the Civil War, when three divisions of soldiers traveled south from Pennsylvania to quell civil unrest in Baltimore and to protect the area's railroad bridges.

But the family asserts that the troops stayed about 1,000 feet away from the property, beside a stream, Western Run, which may have been Cockey property but is not included in Cromwell's 8.87 acres.

Josias Cromwell said at the County Council meeting in August that if troops ever stayed at the house, his great-aunt, who was 10 when the war broke out and lived in the house until her death in 1944, would have known.

"[She] saw a lot in her life," he said. "One of the things she didn't see was troops near the house or in the house. I'm sure we would have heard about it because of her association with my grandparents, my parents, and my uncle.

"Besides, that's something you want to brag about if it really was the case," Josias Cromwell said.

Even if the troops were on the property, Schmidt questions just how important that would be.

"There's no allegation that there was a battle here, or that Ulysses Grant's headquarters were here, or [that of] any other important figure," Schmidt said. "The allegation is that union soldiers camped here, to which I would respectfully suggest that union soldiers camped a lot of places. The mere fact that a union soldier may have rolled out his sleeping bag and slept on the property isn't significant."

The Cromwell family's recourse now is to convince the County Council to not include Melrose Farm on the final list for landmark designation. Huff, who represents the 3rd District, which includes Cockeysville, declined comment until he meets with the parties involved. He said he plans to meet with Cromwell and Schmidt this week.

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