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Ellicott City church seeks to demolish building in town's historic district 106-year-old structure cannot be restored, St. Paul's members say


Treasure in the rough, or century-old eyesore?

That's what members of the Howard County Historic District Commission are trying to decide as they weigh the proposed demolition of a fire-damaged building owned by St. Paul's Church in his toric Ellicott City.

Members of the group, which has advisory authority over demolition in the historic district, visited the 106-year-old building behind the church on St. Paul Street on Wednesday.

"It would probably be the first old building [in the historic district] demolished -- the first one ever, to the best of my knowledge," aside from six buildings that were virtually destroyed in a 1984 fire, said Herbert Johl, commission chairman.

Built into a bluff overlooking Baltimore and Ohio railroad tracks and hidden by other buildings belonging to the church, the building originally was a parish hall for St. Peter's Episcopal Church, which has relocated elsewhere in Ellicott City.

St. Peter's burned down in 1939, and the hall was converted into apartments. After a suspected arson in 1982, the building was ordered condemned and boarded up.

The Rev. Thomas Donaghy, parish priest at St. Paul's since 1991, said his predecessors have been considering the building's demolition since that fire.

"Our people have told us that it is not worthwhile to restore it," said Father Donaghy, referring to parishioners who are engineers who have examined it.

The church considers the former hall an eyesore and a safety hazard. It had to be boarded up again in the spring of 1994 to keep out vagrants who had been living there.

"To let it stand until it falls is not responsible," said Doris Thompson, commission member and St. Paul parishioner, who is abstaining from the commission's deliberations because of her ties to the church. "It's not an asset to the property. It serves no purpose."

The commission, created in 1974 to preserve the architectural heritage of the county's historic districts, can delay for up to 90 days the demolition of buildings deemed of special significance.

It cannot, however, prohibit a property owner from destroying a building.

The question of whether to recommend the demolition came up at the commission's Nov. 2 meeting, but action was postponed until its Dec. 7 meeting for further investigation.

Until then, the commission will evaluate the structure of the building and its historical significance to see if it is worth saving.

Last week, several commission members went to the site to evaluate the structure and fire damage -- only to find that they were unable to gain access because the doors and windows were boarded up.

"It doesn't appear to be too rough, in terms of the structure, but I have no idea what's inside," said Neil Lang, commission member and architect, who looked at the building's exterior. "I don't know what is left in terms of a floor, crossbeams."

Bladen Yates, 77, owner of Ellicott City's 100-year-old Yates Market, attended St. Peter's until it burned down, and remembers the building as the Sunday school room where classes were held, along with plays, Christmas parties and socials.

"I hate to see any old building torn down I think most of us do," said Mr. Yates, with whom the commission plans to talk.

But he said he understands why St. Paul's might not see the structure as important enough to save, adding, "it wasn't a church -- it was just a Sunday school room."

St. Paul's recently finished restoring a different building next to the former parish hall. Rededicated last month as the Parish Center, that building served as Howard County's first bank and as a hospital during the Civil War.

"It's a much more substantial building and it's really more historical," Father Donaghy said.

"There was no question about restoring the other building. Its condition is beyond restoring."

Even so, said Mr. Johl, the commission chairman, "You don't like to get rid of old historic buildings."

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