Development sprouts around first Johns Hopkins home
By By Natalie Sherman and The Baltimore Sun
Feb 25, 2014 at 5:00 AM
The Crofton birthplace of Johns Hopkins, which once anchored hundreds of acres of farmland in Anne Arundel County, soon may see its territory shrink once more.
A developer has proposed building an assisted-living center on the 10.5-acre lot next door to Whites Hall, a brick home where the founder of the Baltimore university and hospital was born in 1795.
The plans sparked traffic fears among residents, as well as concerns about development on one of the last lots next to the house, which was built in the 1700s and anchors the remaining 13 acres of what was originally an 1,800-acre land grant given in 1665 to Colonial official Jerome White.
"A historic building is very much a part of the environment," said C. Jane Cox, Anne Arundel County cultural resources planner, which has asked for modifications to the development. "We're trying to maintain its historic setting."
Whites Hall's history is not widely known, although a plaque on the corner of Johns Hopkins and Riedel roads notes its connection to Hopkins, who worked in the tobacco fields after his Quaker family freed their slaves in 1807 and left at the age of 17.
The house, which was remodeled over the years, remained in the Hopkins family until 1910, according to the state. Through the years, the land was divided by family inheritance, parceled off to tenant farmers and former slaves and eventually built up into golf courses and hundreds of townhouses.
Unoccupied today, the home — not to be confused with the more recognized Whitehall near Annapolis — was the seat of a 450-acre working farm as recently as 1969, when it was listed as a Maryland Historic Trust site, according to state documents.
It is one of the last historic structures in the area not to fall to development, said Joseph L. Browne, author of the Crofton history "From Sotweed to Suburbia."
"My book came out in 1985. Since then, many of the buildings that are featured in there and described as still standing are no longer," he said. "A lot of historic structures have been lost."
Since 1973, the amount of developed land in Anne Arundel County has almost doubled, from 68,479 acres to 135,166 acres in 2010, according to the state Department of Planning. Between 1990 and 2010, the county's population grew 26 percent and the number of housing units rose by 35 percent.
Whites Hall was purchased in 1941 by Stephen W. Duckett, the former owner of an Annapolis laundry and dry-cleaning business, who restored the property and raised Black Angus cattle there with his wife, Thelma, according to Baltimore Sun archives. In 1991, he realized a dream more than two decades in the making, turning about 175 acres into the Walden Golf Club.
After Duckett's death, the family sold Whites Hall and about 51 acres in 2005 for $2.5 million to Severn Run LLC and Hole in One Limited, development interests controlled by Millersville developer Rick Polm.
The house, which land records suggest was lived in after it last changed hands, is empty today and has started to look the worse for wear, with peeling paint and broken window panes.
Polm Cos. declined to respond to questions about plans for the property.
County Councilman Jerry Walker said he believes Polm has entertained offers for the house. He and other county officials said they hope it is occupied soon, either by a new owner or by a nonprofit willing to fund its upkeep.
"We've got a lot of really neat history in that house. … Obviously, you want somebody that is going to take care of it and maintain it," Walker said.
Nearby, Polm Cos. has moved forward with development, recently building expensive homes in a 28-acre cul-de-sac community off Johns Hopkins Road called "Duckett Farm." In December, it submitted plans for a 74,000-square-foot, 84-unit nursing home called the Spring Arbor Assisted Living Center on the 10.5-acre lot next to Whites Hall, located at 2179 Johns Hopkins Road on what is a popular sledding hill.
"We're not getting the open space ... promised us, and taking this last piece of beautiful, pristine property is just not right," said Torrey Jacobsen, vice president of the Greater Crofton Council, an umbrella group for local homeowners associations, which is opposed to the facility because of congestion concerns.
Jacobsen, a real estate agent who is involved with the Linthicum Walks historic home, said the area does not need an assisted-living facility, and he would prefer a small number of townhouses. Whites Hall, he said, should be occupied or picked up by the state or a nonprofit.
"There's no reason why that house is empty," he said. "People would line up to rent that house, and if he doesn't want to rent it and he wants to sell it, then people would line up to buy it. It's a very beautiful piece of property."
On Dec. 23, planners from Anne Arundel County Planning and Zoning Department's cultural resources division wrote a letter with concerns that the assisted-living facility would disrupt the sense of place evoked by the sweeping view of the house, set back from Johns Hopkins Road, a historic route.
They did not recommend denying the proposal but suggested changes, including additional plant cover, a smaller-scale building and a reorientation of the site plan away from Johns Hopkins Road.
Cox, one of the letter's authors, said Whites Hall is protected as a state historic property.
"It's an attempt to keep a building in enough of a context, which can be a challenge sometimes," she said. "We look forward to working with the developer to find that happy medium."
The county's Office of Administrative Hearings will hold a meeting Tuesday to review the plans. It has not yet vetted the application, which could change in response to the cultural resources concerns, said Lori Rhodes, administrator for the office of planning and zoning. A nursing facility fits the site's zoning and plans comply with density requirements, but the developer must demonstrate need.
"It's not really whether they like it or not. It's whether that use can comply with the criteria," she said.
Walker said an assisted-living center would create local jobs and be a "better fit" than more homes, given problems in the area with school crowding and traffic. A 52-unit townhouse development was previously discussed for the lot, although no plans were ever formally submitted, according to the county.
"That's my preference, given the choice of the two," he said, noting that the county has limited ability to influence the use of privately owned land. "He's going to do something with it. It's just a matter of time."