'Walking encyclopedia' McGrain named the official Baltimore County historian


For almost 25 years, John W. McGrain has been keeping tabs on Baltimore County heritage as executive secretary of the county Landmarks Preservation Commission. In all that time, he never missed a meeting.

Now, McGrain, 66, a planning department employee, has been named official county historian as the department funnels new resources into preserving the county's cultural identity. While he will continue to do research, Kimberly Abe, 33, is taking over administrative duties for the landmarks commission as secretary.

"For many years, John has been the everything -- the secretary, the preservationist, the researcher, the writer," said Arnold F. "Pat" Keller, planning director. "Historical preservation was an area we needed to beef up. When Kim came on board, it freed John to do what he does best."

Many preservationists praise the reorganization.

"John is a walking encyclopedia of Baltimore County. He is an outstanding researcher," said Judith Kremen, executive director of the Baltimore County Historical Trust and a former commission member. "Kim has the interest and energy to do her job."

Abe will assume responsibility for many of the details that go into preservation planning, such as renovation permits, tax credits and tracking historic sites.

The Perry Hall native was a community planner in San Diego before moving to Towson a year ago and joining the planning department. She is pursuing a certificate in historic preservation at Goucher College.

Meanwhile, she is absorbing as much as she can from McGrain, her mentor.

"He knows everything," said Abe, who has been visiting various county historic sites with McGrain, a dapper man most often dressed in shirt and tie. "He's a veritable database."

With Abe in place, the planning office, bolstered by $100,000 in county funds and a $25,000 state grant, is about to engage in a comprehensive countywide survey to identify old sites and structures. Over the years, almost 3,000 places have been tagged as potentially historic.

A seven-member advisory committee, including Kremen, has been appointed by County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger to oversee the study, which comes on the heels of the controversial demolition of several structures in the county in recent years.

Public outcry followed the razing of such sites as the 19th-century Maryvale Tenant House in Greenspring Valley in January, and the 1767 Samuel Owings House in Owings Mills in 1996.

"We knew we had to do something," Keller said. "There is a real discrepancy in how sites are designated. The unfortunate thing is the whole thing has evolved into a way to fight developers."

But County Councilman Douglas B. Riley, a Towson Republican, questions whether the study will make older properties vulnerable to development if they are not included on the list. He also wondered why a new group was needed to evaluate the historic sites.

"The direction should come from the landmarks commission," said Riley of the 15-member body appointed by the county executive. "They are the ones who should be doing the survey."

Michael H. Davis, a spokesman for the county executive, said the landmarks commission still would be responsible for

determining which sites should be protected. The advisory group would work with a consultant to determine which buildings should be considered by the commission.

McGrain, who is familiar with most of the identified historic sites in the county, acknowledges that not all old structures need to be protected.

"Even I wouldn't save all of them," he said. "They do not always meet the criteria of excellence."

According to the county code, a property must meet certain guidelines to be saved, such as being associated with an event of historical importance or representing a distinctive example of a particular architectural style or period.

"The review is important," Abe said. "It lets people know early that they have a historical site. That's important."

Pub Date: 6/09/98

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