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Remember the Patapsco Female Institute? A look back at the Ellicott City boarding school for girls

Patapsco Female Institute was a school for girls from 1837 until 1891; this photo was taken in the 1880s. The students learned botany, chemistry, mathematics and foreign languages. Photo courtesy of Howard County Department of Recreation & Parks.
Patapsco Female Institute was a school for girls from 1837 until 1891; this photo was taken in the 1880s. The students learned botany, chemistry, mathematics and foreign languages. Photo courtesy of Howard County Department of Recreation & Parks. (Jennifer Rynda / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

The Patapsco Female Institute’s mission atop a hill overlooking Ellicott City was clear. With a school for boys, Rock Hill Academy, already established in town, the institute became the center of education for aspiring female students.

The institute was built on land donated by John, Andrew and Joseph Ellicott, three brothers who founded the town of Ellicott’s Mills — which later was renamed Ellicott City.

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From 1837 to 1891, the boarding school instructed its pupils on subjects such as botany, chemistry, geography, history and philosophy. Under the direction of Almara Hart Lincoln Phelps, who served as headmistress from 1841 to 1856, enrollment swelled to a high of 143 young women ranging in age from 12 to 18.

The state endorsed the institute’s intentions, subsidizing eight full-tuition scholarships each year.

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The building mirrored the popular Greek Revival architectural movement. A landscaped carriage road leading to an entrance framed by four thick columns was a captivating image for new students and visitors.

The U.S. Civil War, however, took a toll on enrollment, and the building was closed for several years. The academy reopened but failed to enjoy the attendance numbers experienced during the Phelps era.

Financial troubles and competition from a growing public school system forced the school to close in 1891. The site then became an upscale hotel, a hospital for World War I veterans, a theater, a nursing home and a private home over the following 75 years.

In 1965, the Friends of the Patapsco Female Institute formed to preserve the crumbling building and persuaded Howard County to buy the eight-acre property for $17,500 a year later. After a series of renovations, the grounds have been open to the public since 1995 as the Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park.

“We are open for tours,” said Caitlin Chamberlain, living history and heritage program manager for Howard County, adding that the park is open on weekends from 1 to 4 p.m. and is free of charge. “We do archaeology camps because it’s still an active archaeological site. There’s weddings, Shakespeare in the Ruins, and with these events, we do plan to continue those. And for the future, we really want to have the site open even more just as a park as it should be.”

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