Saving the past to teach history Former mill town duplex to be restored for history center


It doesn't look like much to the casual observer, this two-story stone dwelling set back in the Patapsco Valley State Park near Elkridge.

But the building that is now the River of History and Conservation Center is an important piece of history. Dating to the 1830s, it is the only surviving building from the once vibrant mill town of Avalon.

And after serving as a private residence and a park rangers' office, the building is being renovated as a space to interpret the history of the Patapsco Valley. Park naturalist Offutt Johnson has been leading the effort to get private builders and contractors to donate repairs.

Eventually, Johnson hopes, the duplex will provide exhibits explaining the geological formation of the valley, the history of Native Americans in the area, scenes of Colonial life andthe history of Avalon. The renovation could be complete by next summer.

"It's a beautiful part of the Patapsco State Park," Johnson said of the area, which is flanked by the Patapsco River, the railroad line and the Thomas Viaduct. "We want it to look like something that resembles a Currier & Ives Christmas scene."

The long-gone town was home to the Avalon Iron and Nail Works, a bustling factory that employed about 50 men. Scattered throughout the community were 25 to 30 homes identical to the remaining stone duplex and similar to the homes in nearby mill towns.

"It was a fairly sizable community," said Ed Orser, professor of American studies at University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "There were really quite a number of [duplexes]. It certainly resembles what you see in Oella and what you see in Ellicott City."

Avalon was destroyed by the flood of 1868, the duplex its sole survivor. "It is remarkable," Orser said. "It is terrific that it exists and that there are some efforts to help shore it up."

Time had taken a toll

Time had taken a toll on several key parts of the building, including the roof, chimneys and attic.

"The building was usable," Johnson said. "But the roof was just hanging up there out of habit."

Johnson approached a number of homebuilding and construction companies, and he made a successful pitch for donated services.

Harkins Builders Inc. of Silver Spring supervised repairs to the roof and the attic. Bill Prehn Home Improvements of Elkridge agreed to repair the chimneys, and several subcontractors were involved.

"There were some aspects of the building that were very much in need of repair," said Richard Lombardo, executive vice president of Harkins Builders. "It seemed like a worthwhile cause."

Johnson is seeking corporate sponsors to donate repairs to the plumbing, heating and air conditioning systems.

"Everybody's been just wonderful," he said. "We could never have done this without their type of help."

Pub Date: 5/29/98

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