When Howard County first acquired the Patapsco Female Institute, there was a jungle growing up the center of the building — or what was left of it.
"The roof was gone, the walls were in different states of collapse," said Clara Gouin, a park planner for Howard County Recreation and Parks who has been involved in the institute's restoration. "Some were in danger of falling on an observer."
Built atop a hill overlooking Ellicott City, the institute was a school for girls from 1837 until 1891. After that, it was used as a hotel, a private residence, a theater and a nursing home before falling into abandonment and disrepair. Over the years, it's also been a spot for illicit fraternity initiations, tagged by spray paint-wielding vandals and trespassed upon by ghost hunters hoping to glimpse the spirit of a former student.
Since the late 1990s, however, the Patapsco Female Institute has found a new life as a site for weddings, historic re-enactments, summertime theater performances by the Chesapeake Shakespeare Co. – and, of course, ghost tours at Halloween.
This Sunday, Howard County Recreation and Parks is commemorating the 20th anniversary of the institute's rededication and opening, as well as the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Friends of the Patapsco Institute, the group that has advocated for its preservation.
From 2 to 4 p.m., the county will host interactive living history activities, followed by a reception from 4 to 6 p.m. The event is free and open to the public.
"It's a good opportunity to show off our progress," said Recreation and Parks Director John Byrd.
School on the hill
Opened in 1837, the Patapsco Female Institute was built on land donated by John, Andrew and Joseph Ellicott, the three brothers who founded the town of Ellicott's Mills — which would later be renamed as Ellicott City — on the banks of the Patapsco River.
The site of sawmills, grain mills, an ironworks and other industry, Ellicott's Mills thrived in the early 19th century. In 1830, it got its own train stop on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad line.
"The Ellicott brothers were rather philanthropic about things, and they wanted to have a good city where their new business had been established," said Gouin. With a school for boys, Rock Hill Academy, already located in the town, the Patapsco Female Institute established Ellicott's Mills as a center of education for young women, as well.
A Greek Revival building with a landscaped carriage road winding up to an entrance flanked by four thick columns, the school was a striking first image for visitors and new students arriving in town.
"People would arrive by train in Ellicott City and they would look up the hill and here's ... what looked like a majestic Greek temple," said Gouin.
The school's location also provided a respite from the frenetic pace of the town below.
"Ellicott's Mills is an industrial town with the milling industry, the railroad, the ironworks," said Jaimie Wilder, heritage coordinator for Howard County Recreation and Parks. "It's very busy, bustling, and you come here and you're at the top of everything. It's kind of your own little isolated paradise. But for many of them it was not paradise, because they were hard at work."
Under headmistress Almira Hart Lincoln Phelps, who was in charge from 1841 until 1856, the institute earned a reputation for the breadth of the education it provided, unlike many other American finishing schools of the time period where young women focused on learning sewing and other home arts.
Students at the Patapsco Female Institute, who ranged in age from 12 to 18, learned botany, chemistry, mathematics and foreign languages.
"The emphasis was on women getting an education here, to leave the PFI being able to be engaged citizens in the world around them, which was pioneering for the time," said Wilder.
Phelps, herself a botanist and the author of a popular book on plants, planted the grounds with a wide variety of trees so that her students could learn to identify them through first-hand experience.
Phelps believed "that you will always be within good company if you can talk about a variety of subjects: anything from the interesting bug in the corner, to the flower that's growing in the garden, to the stars in the sky," according to Wilder.
The school operated for more than 50 years — though it closed for a brief interval during the Civil War — until it shut its doors for good in 1891.
Decay, then new life
Though the school was no longer, the Patapsco Female Institute's building had several more phases in its life before the jungle that Gouin described started to grow.
For about a decade at the turn of the 20th century, it was an upscale hotel called the Burg Alnwick and the location of Howard County's first in-ground swimming pool, built on the grounds for guests.
In the 1930s, it became a hilltop theater, where troupes performed for four seasons before World War II struck and gasoline rationing made it impossible for patrons to drive out from Baltimore to catch a show.
The county's historians are still learning more about the building's use; one theory suggests the institute might have been used as a hospital for World War I convalescents, and it was a private residence several times in its history. But the building's last use, before becoming abandoned, was as a nursing home, which closed in the 1950s because it could not meet fire safety codes and other requirements, according to Wilder.
In the 1960s, Gouin said, a developer targeted the area as a commercial site. In protest, "the homeowners who lived on Church Road came up and joined hands" to block the project, she said.
In 1965, the Friends of the Patapsco Female Institute was formed, "in order to protect the building so it wouldn't be torn down," said Lee Preston, a local archaeologist and a former president of the Friends group.
The group approached Howard officials to ask for help saving the building, and in 1966, the county bought the institute and its grounds, a total of about 8 acres of property, for $17,500.
Though the institute was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the Maryland Register of Historic Properties in 1978, the property – roof-less, crumbling, damaged by several fires and years of neglect – was for a long time inaccessible to the public.
"They didn't do anything for a number of years because the question was what do you do with what is essentially a white elephant?" said Gouin.
When the property received a $100,000 grant from the Maryland Historical Trust, one of the conditions was that the trust would oversee future work on the property.
"They helped us determine the idea of stabilizing [the institute] as a ruin, along the lines of European castles," said Preston.
Between 1993 and 1995, the county worked to stabilize the structure, installing blue steel beams (the color was chosen as a nod to the building's Greek Revival architecture; the Greek flag is blue and white) to reinforce the granite facade and a wood inlay floor that marks where walls, doors and fireplaces once stood.
In 1995, the county and the Friends joined together to rededicate the institute, with a celebration that included a Phelps impersonator who rode to the top of the hill in a horse-drawn carriage, Union soldier re-enactors and Civil War-era music.
Today, the institute is again thriving as a cultural center.
For 13 years, the Chesapeake Shakespeare Co. has held early summer performances in the ruins (next year's seasons begins June 10), and the institute also hosts summer camps, archaeological programs for local youth, weddings, events and ghost tours.
Wilder, who attended an archaeology camp led by Preston at the institute as an 8-year-old, called the building's journey to this new life "a story of community collaboration."
The rededication event, said Byrd, the director of Recreation and Parks, is "a great opportunity to showcase what we've been able to do over the last 20 years and maybe to jumpstart that effort and give it a little push."
"This is about as close to time travel as we're going to get," Wilder added.