The Friends of the Patapsco Female Institute are weeks away from realizing a 30-year-old dream of refurbishing the historic Greek Revival structure and opening it as the centerpiece of a garden park. The volunteer group and everyone else who has had a hand in this project should be congratulated for their vision and hard work.
From 1837 to 1890, the institute operated out of a three-story granite building on the highest hilltop overlooking Ellicott City. The one-time middle and high school for girls is historically significant because it was the nation's first to instruct young women in math and science. The objective of headmistress Almira Phelps, an accomplished botanist, was to create something more than another finishing school for girls whose main goal was to marry well. She aimed to turn out young women of elegance, yes, but also of self-sufficiency.
The school's progressive philosophy and curriculum attracted pupils from as far away as the southern and midwestern United States. But as public education began to broaden its offerings during the late 1800s, the Patapsco school lost its singular status. It finally closed just before the turn of the century. The building later served as a hotel, a private residence, a hospital, a theater and a home for indigent people. Abandoned, the structure fell into disrepair. Its wooden fixtures were stripped. Its roof collapsed in a fire. Graffiti artists left their marks.
Still, even in woeful condition, it retained its dignity and magnificence. This wasn't lost on the Friends group, which has labored over three decades to draw attention to the cause and raise a revitalization fund that the Howard County government could not wholly provide. However, the county will maintain the building and the surrounding garden park of stately trees as well as cover some of the cost of any remaining capital improvements. In addition, the Maryland Humanities Council and the Columbia Foundation have helped underwrite programs at the former institute for women, such as the popular "Archaeology Adventures" in which children tour the building and participate in the digs that have turned up nearly 100,000 artifacts from the site.
The remodeled building officially opens Sept. 30 with guided and audio tours. Lectures, concerts and weddings also are expected to be held there. Residents of the region can look forward to reveling in a unique landmark that lay dormant for many years but has returned gloriously to life.