Preservation of Oella mill town brings honors for developer

Charles Wagandt is waiting patiently.

When he stepped up nearly 40 years ago to help rescue a town whose very existence was being threatened, recession certainly wasn't on his mind. But now, the nation's sluggish economy is his primary foe as he waits for the downturn to lift so he can finally complete his promise to Oella.


For his decades-long efforts to breathe new life into the historic village that dates to 1808, Wagandt was named one of four 2011 Preservationists of the Year last week by Preservation Howard County.

"Charles is a very concerned preservationist with a deep family interest in Oella," said Fred Dorsey, PHC president. He inspires Howard County residents "to appreciate and care for our local history and heritage," which also dovetails nicely with PHC's mission.


Wagandt's name is synonymous with the reinvention of Oella, which hugs the eastern banks of the Patapsco River on the western edge of Baltimore County yet bears an Ellicott City address.

Since the real estate developer purchased the 76-acre mill village in 1973 following Hurricane Agnes' devastation the year before, he's been working tirelessly to revive the town where his great-grandfather William J. Dickey owned and operated a textile mill in the late 19th century called W.J. Dickey and Sons.

"I've been rehabbing and developing the mill village," said Wagandt, who is 86 and resides in Baltimore. "It should have been finished a few years ago, but a stumbling block called the Great Recession came along and now I'm five years out from completing the work.

"I'm being patient, though; what choice do I have?" he asked. "And I'm not going to under-price the properties; I'm keeping my obligation to the people who invested their lives in the mill."

But it doesn't come easy. "There's so much to do that I've got to pick and choose," he said. Before he begins his day at the Oella Co., which is located in the century-old Oella Methodist Church, the former Marine goes for a three- to four-mile run, a ritual he's maintained for nearly 50 years.

"Charles is a man of vision and the caliber of his work is top-notch," said Lisa Wingate, a historic preservation consultant who previously nominated him for the two lifetime achievement awards that he's won: the Calvert Prize, given by the Maryland Historical Trust in 2008, and the President's Award, given by Preservation Maryland in 2007.

"Who would dream of taking on a 70-plus-acre property with around a hundred historic residences and turning it into a revitalized, vibrant residential community for the 21st century?" Wingate asked.

Apparently, Wagandt would, and did.

"My great-grandfather bought the Union Manufacturing Co. in 1887 along with 1,500 acres," he said.

The mill, which produced cottons and woolens, burned down in 1918 and was rebuilt, then survived the Great Depression and became prosperous in the 1950s, he said.

"But the Sixties came along and everything was topsy-turvy," he recalled. "There was a cultural revolution, a civil rights revolution and a sexual revolution, and that's when men stopped wearing sports coats and started wearing double-knits and the market went to hell."

After the mill was closed and sold to a machinery dealer in the early 1970s, there were 76 leftover acres, he said. They weren't subdivided and had no water or sewer. But the town and its workers, who lived in company-provided housing, had been thrown into a quagmire of social and economic problems, he said, and someone needed to intervene.


"I said, 'I'll take it,' but I wouldn't have guessed it would take 11 years to get water and sewer put in there," he said.

Undaunted, Wagandt brought in planners and engineers and started a homeowners' association to protect the town's historic designation, among many other achievements. While the Oella Company built some new housing, for the most part it determined the locations of new lots and sold them to homebuilders.

"I've had three objectives: historic preservation, smart growth with clustered units and open space, and ensuring that long-term tenants could remain in improved housing at rents affordable to them," he said. "It's been amazing to see the town come to life again."

That Wagandt will keep his promise to Oella goes without saying, says Wingate.

"There's no question that he wants to see this all the way to the end," she said.

Edward Lilley, another of the four winners of preservationist awards given out Sept. 18, said of Wagandt, whom he's known for 25 years and considers a mentor, "I'm convinced that Oella wouldn't be there without Charles. Tenacious is a very good word to describe him. He's amazing."

Lilley was recognized for his work for the past 15 years as president of Ellicott City Restoration Foundation, guiding its efforts in preserving the historic character of Ellicott City, Dorsey said. He has developed partnerships with the Historic District Commission and other organizations, assisted in the housing of a Visitors Center in the Post Office building, and initiated a program to attach identification markers on historic buildings.

Jenifer Johnson was honored as the moving force behind the restoration of Old Brick Church on the property of Christ Episcopal Church in Columbia, along with the founding of The Friends of Old Brick, Dorsey said. The project, which began in 2005, is nearing completion just in time for the 200th anniversary celebration of the church's consecration, which is planned for Oct. 16.

Adele Air has worked with the county department of recreation and parks to conduct activities at the Thomas Isaac Cabin, Patapsco Female Institute and B&O Railroad Station, and for historic tours of Ellicott City. She was also involved with the Civil War Trail and later served as executive director of the Maryland National Road Association. Air is currently the main museum educator at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick.

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