After eight years, county volunteers are realizing a long-hel dream to transform the ruins of the Patapsco Female Institute into a garden park and education center.
Under the auspices of the National Park Service, the Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks is putting the finishing touches on plans to stabilize the former school's collapsing walls, wooden decks and walkways. The county could begin seeking bids next month.
"It's a big thrill for me," said Sally Bright, a member of Friends of the Patapsco Female Institute, which is working with the county to steady the building and plant a garden on the institute grounds.
The project has been delayed for the past eight years due to a lack of funding, time constraints, and changes in county parks administration, county officials and volunteers said.
"We've gone through four parks administrators," Ms. Bright said. "We're there, but they keep changing."
From 1837 to 1890, the institute's 57-room granite building with Doric columns was a center of education for young women. It was the first finishing school in the nation to offer women courses in math and science.
The building was subsequently used as a summer hotel known as Berg Alynwick, a private home, summer theater and a nursing home, and was abandoned in the 1950s. The county bought the building in 1966.
The county will use a $100,000 state grant to help pay for the work.
Some work has already been done on the ruins. Three years ago, workers removed debris and temporarily anchored the crumbling walls, Ms. Bright said.
Current plans call for permanently securing the collapsing walls, wooden decks and walkways on the second and third floors of the ruins, and restoration of four Doric columns. That work is expected to be finished by 1994, when the garden part of the project will begin.
"It'll have the romantic aspects of ruined castles in England," said senior park planner Clara L. Gouin. "It'll be a very attractive place for the area."
County officials and members of the Friends of the Patapsco Female Institute envision school groups and tourists visiting the ruins, which will be the focal point of a Victorian garden.
The garden will contain gazebos, fountains, and plants that were popular in gardens between 1835 and 1914, volunteers said. Botany was one of the more popular subjects the school had to offer. One particular rose that was needed for the garden, the Baltimore Belle Rose, was discovered in the Paca Gardens in Annapolis.
"It will be a meditating garden, a relaxing garden," said Chi Chi Brown, president of Friends of the Patapsco Female Institute.
Visitors will be able to use it as an outdoor laboratory, or as a place from which to contemplate panoramic views of Ellicott City and the Patuxent River Valley.
Eventually, county officials and volunteers hope to transform a portion of the chapel wing into offices, meeting rooms, a research library, and restrooms.
Signs about the institute's history will be posted throughout the site.