After a long wait, decaying Ellicott City institute to regain lost prestige


After serving as an easel for local graffiti artists for almost three decades, the Patapsco Female Institute in Ellicott City is reclaiming its position as one of the classiest places on the East Coast.

"Ten years ago, it didn't look like this. One hundred and fifty years ago, it did," said Meryl Carmel, Friends of the Patapsco Female Institute board member.

Thirty years of fund raising and planning finally are paying off for the Friends, who organized in 1965 to save the deteriorating Greek Revival structure.

The graffiti has been erased, the beer bottles and trash removed, and the crumbling granite walls stabilized. On Sept. 30, the site will open as a historic garden park with guided and audio tours.

"It's such a unique site. It's a female school, an archaeological site and a stabilized site. There's nothing else like it," said Mary Nelson, docent coordinator for the site.

On the highest hill overlooking historic Ellicott City, the institute was a premier school for girls who came from prestigious families all around the United States.

But in a time when society was only interested in boarding schools that produced elegant wives, the institute was producing elegant women. Students learned botany, chemistry and philosophy in addition to the accepted 19th-century female charm curriculum of languages and music.

The school closed in 1891 due to financial problems and competition from the expanding public school system. Over the next 75 years, the school was a resort, World War I veterans hospital, theater, nursing home and a private home.

In 1966, the school landed in the hands of Howard County government. But the county had no idea what to do with it.

Then, troubled by small fires and vandals, the school had its woodwork and collapsing roof removed by the county for safety reasons. By 1986, all that was left of the once chandelier-and-crystal high-society building were its rapidly deteriorating walls and a lone roof gable leaning against a tree.

Original county plans called for turning the institute into a civic center for concerts and plays, but the cost of restoring the building was beyond county means.

Unwilling to watch the building degenerate into a pile of rubble or turn into condominiums -- the fate of the Rock Hill Academy boys school at the foot of the hill -- the Friends sought help from the Nation al Arboretum in Washington.

Then-director of the arboretum, Dr. Marc Cathey, knew what to do with the ruins.

After exploring the building and surrounding Japanese maples, magnolias, tulip poplars and oak trees, Dr. Cathey told the Friends that they had something great, said Friends President ,, Sally Bright. He envisioned a stabilized ruin with tiered gardens and winding walkways that would become a county cultural center for lectures, arts, concerts and historic research and tours.

"In this country, we tend to restore down to the last detail or tear it down and build something completely new," said Clara Gouin, senior park planner for the county Department of Recreation and Parks.

"Very few ruins are restored. It's very European to do something like that."

Local response to the project has been supportive, Mrs. Bright said.

If area residents are aware of the ruins, the confusion concerning the building's original function has created many rumors. The combination of "female" and "institute" have led many to believe the site was either a female prison or a women's mental hospital for the criminally insane.

"I didn't know what it was," said Bob Ferguson, who learned about the history of the site when he took a son there during one of the county's Department of Recreation and Parks hands-on archaeology student summer camps.

Ellicott City resident Renee Goldstein also learned about the site's history when she took her children to the site for the summer camp tour.

For her, the importance of the site lies in its contributions to women's history.

"I'm doing this for my daughter," Mrs. Goldstein said. "Females played an important role in history, but it's such a male focus. You always hear about males and all the battles and conquering. You don't hear about the women behind the scenes."

Beginning in 1986 with the help of area students, archaeological excavations at the site have uncovered more than 90,000 artifacts, including marbles, toothbrushes and two pieces of gold and turquoise jewelry, circa 1850.

Final stabilization of the site began in 1993 with $1.2 million in capital project funding from the county.

The next phase will be landscaping wooded gardens around the ruins, which is expected to take place within two years.

Residents interested in details about the fall opening can call Friends of the Patapsco Female Institute at 465-8500.

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