Preservationists battle loss of Maryland historic sites

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In its March 11 editions, The Sun reported incorrectly that the Howard County Board of Appeals had given the South Columbia Baptist Church permission to raze Moundland, a historic house. In fact, the congregation received permission to build a new church. It did not need the board's permission to raze the historic house on its property.

The Sun regrets the error.

Can a phone booth have historic value?

Not usually, but when it was used to coordinate the cover-up of the Watergate scandal, you might expect someone to keep an eye on it. But the phone booth has disappeared from its once-famous perch on Route 355 in Rockville, and no one knows why.

With it went a piece of Maryland's ephemeral history, perhaps trivial but noteworthy. The demise of the "Watergate Phone Booth," one of scores of places in the state's inventory of historic sites, is typical of tales of woe told by those fighting to preserve the state's rich heritage.

Whether it's a colonial farmhouse left to rot by delinquent owners or a picturesque neighborhood threatened by interstate construction, protecting Maryland's history is a struggle.

Often, it is a losing one.

Just last week, Howard County's Board of Appeals handed preservationists a defeat by giving the South Columbia Baptist Church's permission to raze Moundland, a two-story stone house built in the 1840s, to make way for a new church.

A couple of weeks ago a stone house in Hagerstown, built in 1793 and one of the city's oldest structures, was demolished. The property will be subdivided for gas stations and fast-food restaurants.

Even homes being renovated can be lost. Ravenhurst, a Gothic Revival house in Baltimore County where Confederate Gen. Isaac Ridgeway Trimble lived and Jefferson Davis visited, burned down in 1985 and the owners trying to restore it barely got out with their lives.

No one knows exactly how fast Maryland is losing its historic sites, but the best estimates suggest that the attrition rate is high. A 1986 survey conducted by the Maryland Historical Trust showed that 31 percent of all homes built before 1939 had been destroyed.

Preservationists say the survey alerted them to "hot spots" of neglect. In some counties, the rate of loss was staggering. Calvert County had lost 54 percent of homes built before 1939. Anne Arundel had lost 32 percent. Even St. Mary's, long known for its historic efforts, had lost 40 percent.

Preserving the past is not an easy job, in part because the law offers so little help.

The Maryland Historical Trust is endowed with special legal powers to determine whether construction projects would damage historic structures, but its power to stop them is limited to cases in which state or federal money is being used.

In other cases, it is up to a community to protect its heritage. Most don't have laws to protect their historically significant properties, except in special districts such as Annapolis and Ellicott City, but some are taking other measures to promote preservation.

When former Anne Arundel County Executive O. James Lighthizer saw a variety of neglected historic properties dotting the county, he decided to do something about it by launching the Scattered Sites Renewal Program in 1987.

The program offers property owners grants and loans for restoration. Among the historic properties that have benefited is a late 19th-century general store in Severna Park that is now a ranger station on the Baltimore & Annapolis hiking trail.

"A lot of people have the impression that historic renovation is very expensive," said William Gibbons, who helped develop the Scattered Sites Program.

"That's just not true."

Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker also has taken up the cause of historic preservation, asking his planners to prepare legislation aimed at preserving the county's 600 historic sites.

The legislation may include guidelines for maintaining properties, fund to provide grants or loans for preservation and criteria that would have to be met before a landmark could be razed.

Historic trust officials said such local efforts ultimately would determine the future of preservation. They favor giving historic commissions and planning boards the power to stop development in some cases and prosecute those who neglect historic properties.

The trust also strives to educate the public about preservation -- "all the things human beings need to have to feel their heritage," said Michael Day, who oversees local government preservation projects for the trust.

What counties lack in resources can be made up by strong public support for preservation, he said. Anne Arundel, for instance, has no historic commissions or preservation laws, but its scattered sites program is among the most promising in the state, he said.

Preservationists see the tide of public support turning in their favor.

"Historic preservation has become ingrained in the public process," said J. Rodney Little, Maryland's chief preservation officer. "But 10 years ago, we had to fight with every local developer. It was felt that old buildings were a symbol of a lack of economic activity."

John McGrain, who directs historic preservation for Baltimore County, knows that history too well.

He recalled how in 1976 the Bethlehem Steel Corp. tore down the house where British Gen. Robert Ross ate his last breakfast -- Maryland chicken -- before being killed by a local sharpshooter during the Battle of North Point in 1814.

He agreed that preservation efforts had been more effective recently, although "third- or fourth-string houses that don't seem worth defending are the ones that go quickly." The Owings Mills town center, for instance, cut a swath through buildings that were not remarkable individually but together might have constituted a historic district.

The results are tragic because "there are people who instinctively enjoy going to places that are quaint and old," Mr. McGrain said.

What it all comes down to, said Mr. Little, is promoting a fundamental respect for the past. "New is not always better," he said.

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