Towson neighbors worry over fate of Presbyterian Home property

Neighbors fret over future of historic Presbyterian Home in Towson, now up for sale.

When the Presbyterian Home of Maryland announced this month that the assisted-living center would close by the end of the year, residents of Towson's Southland Hills neighborhood lamented the loss of a neighbor that has been in operation for nearly 90 years.

But they also worry about the potential loss of green space considered a shared oasis in their residential enclave.

Amid rising development pressure around downtown Towson, the home's neighbors are concerned that the 4.4-acre property might be sold to a developer who could cover it with townhouses. Now residents are seeking to preserve the property as an historic local resource, and elected officials are petitioning the state to potentially buy the property to protect it from redevelopment.

"It's right in the middle of our neighborhood," said Paul Saleh, president of the Southland Hills Improvement Association. "It's by far the largest green space in our neighborhood. It naturally acts as a gathering spot for us."

For at least 150 years, the grand white mansion on a small hill has been at the heart of the neighborhood. Built more than 150 years ago by the Bosley family — one of Towson's early and influential families — the structure has been used as the Presbyterian Home since 1929.

With Towson lacking much green space, the property has served as an unofficial community park for decades. The property's sloping lawn has hosted community Easter egg hunts, and children line up in front of the home in costumes to kick off the annual Halloween parade. On sunny days, neighbors walk their dogs in the grass and children race scooters along a path at the home.

"This is an important property in Towson, not just for our neighborhood but for the whole community," Saleh said.

However, it no longer makes financial sense to keep operating the Bosley property, said Susan Shea, Presbyterian Home president and CEO.

"We are functionally obsolete as far as a health care community goes," said Shea, who has worked there 39 years. "We could no longer offer a lot of the newer trends."

The Presbyterian Home is licensed for 78 assisted-living residents and 22 nursing-home patients, with rooms located in wings added to the mansion in the 1900s. The original Bosley home houses administrative offices.

Not all resident rooms have their own bathrooms, nor do they have sitting areas or efficiency kitchens, which are now standard in assisted-living communities, Shea said. There also is not enough space for wellness classes such as yoga and exercise.

So the board of the Presbyterian Home — which is not affiliated with the church and is open to residents of all faiths — decided to close down the Towson facility and build a new one in Harford County, Shea said.

Mackenzie Commercial has been hired to market and sell the property, which is zoned for residential use of up to 5.5 units per acre. That's enough for single-family detached homes or townhouses.

There's no list price yet for the property, which is valued at nearly $4 million for tax purposes.

Saleh hopes the next owner will use the 72,706-square-foot building for offices. Ideally, he'd like Baltimore County to buy the building, tear down the newer wings and retain the mansion for office space, though he realizes that's a long shot.

State Sen. Jim Brochin, a Democrat who represents Towson, is petitioning the state to buy the property for offices. In a letter to Gov. Larry Hogan and co-signed by County Councilman David Marks, Brochin suggested the state could relocate some agency offices from leased space elsewhere in Towson to the Presbyterian Home building.

"It just seems like a win-win. If they put up the money now, they'd make up the lease payments in four or five years, and it could end up with savings," Brochin said.

Meanwhile, the Preservation Alliance of Baltimore County submitted a request to county government to designate the building and property as a county landmark. If approved by the county's Landmarks Preservation Commission and the County Council, the designation would mean that any changes to the property would need county approval. And while the designation request is under review, the building couldn't be demolished.

The mansion at the Presbyterian Home complex was built by Dr. Grafton Bosley in the 1850s or 1860s — around the time when Baltimore County was established as a separate jurisdiction from Baltimore City. With white columns and a mansard-style roof, its architecture is considered distinctive.

Bosley had a medical practice with his uncle, Dr. Josiah Marsh, according to state historical records. When Marsh died in 1850, Bosley inherited Marsh's property in what was then known as Towsontown.

It was Bosley who donated land to the new county to build a courthouse and jail, about a half-mile from his home.

After Bosley's death in 1901, the Bosley mansion was owned by other families and for a time was known as the Offutt Estate, before the Presbyterian Home of Maryland bought the property as a home for elderly women in 1929.

"It's one of the only remaining buildings of its time in Towson," said Bryan Fischer, a board member for the Preservation Alliance. "Losing it would be essentially erasing our history that's not celebrated enough, but also losing something that provides residents with a sense of place."

Marks, a Republican who also represents the area, said no matter who buys the property, he'll work to retain the building's historic integrity and bucolic setting. He's been holding meetings with Presbyterian Home officials and neighborhood residents since the closure was announced this month.

"It's an integral part of western Towson's geography," Marks said. "The people who live there value the park-like setting. I don't think they ever envisioned losing the Presbyterian Home."

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