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Unveiling local history Friends to dedicate park at school site


The Friends of the Patapsco Female Institute are throwing themselves a party Saturday to celebrate their 30th birthday.

For a present, they'll unwrap the recently stabilized ruins of the 160-year-old former girls school that overlooks Ellicott City and dedicate it as a one-of-a-kind historic park for the public.

"Finally! is what I feel about it," said Frances Mason, a longtime Friends member and a direct descendant of two of the school's students.

Saturday also will mark the opening of a month-long Decorators' Show House in the park's Mount Ida visitor center, sponsored by the preservation group Historic Ellicott City Inc.

Exactly 30 years ago to the day of the new park's opening, the Friends group was formed to restore the quickly degenerating Greek Revival building to its former status. At the time, only crumbling stone walls were left.

A rarity in 19th-century women's education, the school instructed daughters of wealthy families from all over the United States, especially the South, in botany, physics and geology between 1837 and 1891.

The opening of the historic park is a reunion of sorts for descendants of the school's students.

Deidre Phelps, a Boston educator, will speak at the ceremony as a great-grandniece of Almira Phelps, the school's most famous principal who served from 1841 to 1855.

As publicity about the new park spreads, more and more descendants of the institute's former students are calling the Friends, said Meryl Carmel, executive director for the Friends. Some are coming from as far away as Boston to the grand opening. Others are just walking up the hill.

In her research, Ms. Carmel has uncovered a boy, Alan Sharp Jr., and a girl, Anna Welling, who are both descendants of students. At Glenwood's Bushy Park Elementary, they were in first grade together last year and are in second grade together now.

Ann MacMillan Harrison Ryder, a Wilde Lake village resident, whose aunt four generations back, Carrie MacMillan Kerr, attended the school, said of her involvement with the institute, "It keeps coming back. There must be some connection."

Before Ms. Ryder discovered her ancestral link to the institute in the 1980s, she was already a member of the Friends and had had many encounters with the institute.

She moved to Howard County in 1969, and one of the first things she did was stumble on the institute. Her sons were on the trip with her and, as soon as they got home, the boys "re-created the PFI in Legos," she said. "They've built it and re-created it all their lives."

One of the few people alive who actually lived in the institute is Dr. Charles Clark, a historian and political scientist who now lives just down the hill from Mount Ida, the 19th-century Greek-Italian mansion that serves as the park's visitor center.

At the opening Saturday, he will give a speech on the highlights of the institute. His interest grew from the two years he spent there.

When he was 13 in 1926, he and his 10 brothers and sisters lived in the institute while the family waited to move into Mount Ida.

"We had a lot of fun in that old place," said Dr. Clark, 82. "We were put in the west wing and the girls were in the east wing. We'd get tired of one room and we would take the bed down and the furniture down to another room and set up shop. Then mother would come down to check on us, and she wouldn't know what room we were in."

Dr. Clark lived at the school during its stint as a private residence. Before that, it had also served as a resort, a World War I veterans hospital and a nursing home.

The school closed because of competition from the public schools, Dr. Clark said.

Howard County bought the building in 1963. In the years of neglect that followed during the 1960s and 1970s, it was a popular gathering spot for local teen-agers who covered it with graffiti and left beer bottles.

But with $1 million from the county in 1993, the Friends finally began to carry out the restoration project along European lines -- in which the ruins are not restored but stabilized.

The park's opening program begins at 10 a.m. Saturday at Mount Ida and is free. The day will include tours, interpretive programs, lectures and refreshments.

Historic Ellicott City Inc. is adding another touch to the grand opening, having selected the Mount Ida visitor center as its 11th annual Decorators' Show House fund-raiser.

Like the institute, Mount Ida's 19th-century beauty was marred by 20th-century commercial use and neglect. But the historic preservation group has restored it to a state of elegance for the month of October, Ms. Carmel said, with more than a dozen Baltimore-Washington area designers each working on a room in the house.

Tickets to the Decorators' Show House are $10 at the door; students and senior citizens pay $9. Children must be 12 or older for admission.

Advance tickets are available for $8 by sending a check made out to Historic Ellicott City, Inc., along with a stamped, self-addressed envelope, to Margaret Filbert, 4614 New Cut Road, Ellicott City, 21043.

Proceeds will benefit Historic Ellicott City Inc.'s projects. The fee includes a free pass to visit the institute in the future.

For more information, call 465-8500.

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