For generations of black residents in Annapolis, the dilapidated, pre-Civil War home across the street from City Hall has represented freedom.
The shingled, wood-frame house with a gabled roof was the first home in Maryland's capital owned by a free black man.
And the shell that's left could soon be on the market unless a foundation or museum agrees to take it over in the next month.
Port of Annapolis, a for-profit preservation group created by members of the Historic Annapolis Foundation, has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars just shoring up the sagging frame. Now, realizing they're losing money on the home every day, the group's shareholders want to sell it.
"The expense of continuing the restoration is rather daunting," explained Orlando Ridout IV, an architectural historian and president of Port of Annapolis. "It had been in disrepair for a long time, and termites have gotten into it, and some of the beams and joists are rotted."
George Phelps, a 66-year-old Annapolis native, stood in the sunshine on the crumbling front door steps last Friday and talked about rallying enough residents to save the home.
"That house was a focal point for many, many kids from the older families in Annapolis," said Mr. Phelps, a descendant of the Burgess family, the second family to own the home. He recalled playing with other neighborhood children in the yard, pulling taffy in the kitchen and being cared for by Lillian Burgess. She was the last Burgess to live there -- until 1990.
"It fascinated us, this house, the old timbers in the cellar, the history you could just feel there," he said.
The two-story home at 163 Duke of Gloucester St. is known as the Maynard-Burgess House, named after the families that owned it. John T. Maynard, a free black man who bought freedom for his wife, Maria, in 1838, established his homestead on two lots he bought on the street for $400, historical records show.
His granddaughter sold the home in 1915 to Willis Burgess, one of her boarders. An archaeological dig there last year found artifacts that were used to trace a record of early African-American life in Annapolis.
Port of Annapolis, which buys and restores homes in the city's port district, bought the empty Maynard-Burgess House for $167,000 in January 1991. Historic Annapolis and other foundations did not make a bid for the home because they were strapped for cash with the economic downturn, Mr. Ridout said.
The purchase angered some shareholders, who felt the price was much too high, and led to the ouster of six of the nine board members. An interim board that formed after the controversy decided to focus on making the structure safer.
The City Council passed a resolution this fall designating the home as a historic landmark.