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Owings House demolition on hold Gas line problems delay razing of 1767 structure


An article in Sunday's editions incorrectly quoted John McGrain, executive secretary of Baltimore County's Landmarks Preservation Commission, as saying the dismantling of the historic Samuel Owings House in Owings Mills would damage its bricks. The comment should have been attributed to Jeffrey A. Lees, an architect who sits on the commission.

The Sun regrets the error.

With a demolition permit in hand and a bulldozer at the ready, the owners of one of Baltimore County's oldest houses are set to tear it down and make way for a $20 million office tower.

The demolition of the 1767 Samuel Owings House -- capping a monthslong fight between preservationists and a developer -- had been scheduled for yesterday.

But problems in closing gas lines to the house delayed the project, said Julius W. Lichter, attorney for the office tower's developer. He said the house would be razed as soon as possible, and rebuilt at another location, possibly a 50-acre parcel near Garrison Forest and Caves roads.

"We're going to maintain the brick and store it to rebuild the house as it was originally designed," Mr. Lichter said. The rebuilt version won't include the porch that was added to the house, though its original dormers will be restored, he said.

As it became clear Friday that the fight to keep the house at its Owings Mills site was all but lost, preservationists repeated concerns that the house's historical integrity would vanish in the reconstruction.

"It will have been totally eviscerated at that point," said Jeffrey A. Lees, an architect who sits on Baltimore County's Landmarks Preservation Commission. "It will not be the same house. It will be a new house, with the same bricks."

John McGrain, the commission's executive secretary, added, "If you begin to dismantle it, the bricks are going to be damaged."

The demolition would close a chapter in an unusual dispute that has wound its way from the Landmarks Preservation Commission to U.S. Bankruptcy Court to, in the end, the office of Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III.

Although the landmarks board put the house on a preliminary list of protected properties, Mr. Ruppersberger did not pass the recommendation on for County Council approval. Instead, he shook hands on a deal with developer Howard S. Brown, clearing the way for the office tower.

The county executive said last week his decision was not affected by the fact that Mr. Brown serves on his campaign finance committee and is selling thousands of dollars worth of tickets for a fund-raiser.

The deal involving the house was brokered by T. Bryan McIntire, the county councilman who represents Owings Mills. He has received campaign donations from Mr. Brown's company, and, like the county executive, says there is no conflict of interest.

The county issued a permit Friday for the razing and reconstruction of the house.

As a half-dozen preservationists gathered that afternoon outside the house and warily eyed a nearby bulldozer, some criticized Mr. Ruppersberger's actions. Thomas Cardinale, a member of the Committee to Save the Samuel Owings House, said he understood that the executive is trying to boost county revenues without increasing taxes. "That might be admirable, but the way he handled this wasn't," Mr. Cardinale said. "They shook hands on it -- that's real fast government."

Elise Butler, a lawyer who is a member of the landmarks commission, said her panel has been kept in the dark about the building's fate, despite requests that it be involved in the demolition and reconstruction process.

At issue are the concerns of economic development and the preservation of a house built by the mill owner for whom the area is named. The Samuel Owings House -- also known as "Ulm," the brand name for the original owner's mill products -- is a two-story Georgian built with bricks laid in alternating, Flemish form.

Located in the Painters Mill Executive Office Park, it is flanked by doctors' offices and a sprawling day care center, with a view of the smokestacks at the Sweetheart Cup Co. factory. Until last year, it had housed the Fiori restaurant. That bankrupt business was sold for $275,000 to restaurateurs Henry Pertman and Jeff Pressman, who then waived their claim to the building in return for a spot in the proposed office tower.

Mr. Lees, the landmark commission architect, said the building is a rare example of a Colonial-era Baltimore County house built in the Southern manner with brick, instead of with stones that reflect the more pervasive Pennsylvania Dutch influence.

"I think we're really giving up a lot here for a minimal economic benefit, given all the development in the Owings Mills area," he said.

Richard Glendenning, 32, of Reisterstown, who said his first job was in a restaurant in the house, added, "They talk about how students don't know enough about history, but modern development comes in, and they tear buildings like that down."

Mr. Lichter, the developer's lawyer, said the economic benefits should not be minimized. "Here you have a property owner willing to step up to the plate and build a speculative office building, and he knows he's going to rent it," Mr. Lichter said. "There's something that's going to happen at the property, instead of a building sitting vacant, boarded up."

Construction on the nine-story office tower is scheduled to begin this spring, and the building is expected to be completed within a year, he added.

He said that virtually nothing remains of the original structure except the bricks. "The building, as it now stands, is not a historic building," he said.

Mr. Pertman, the restaurateur, said the controversy over the house has raged long enough. He said, "It would be best if it would be done and everyone could move on with life."

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