In the wee hours of the morning, Roberta Boardman recently awoke bleary-eyed to the sound of metal scraping against stone and the beep-beep-beep of a backhoe backing up in the yard next door.
What the Cockeysville woman found several hours later was a pile of rubble that once was her neighbor's 145-year-old stone house. The structure had been at the center of a heated battle over historic preservation.
Yesterday, Baltimore County officials continued their investigation into who illegally demolished the house without permits as a county councilman called for stiffer penalties to deter violators.
"When I realized what the noise was, I immediately thought, 'Wait a minute, here. They're knocking down that house,' " recalled Boardman, who rents a house on Old Padonia Road.
"When I looked outside, there was a man and one yellow backhoe ramming the house. He was grinding away for hours," Boardman said. "He made so much noise, we called the police. It was the middle of the night. It literally shook the house."
County Police spokeswoman Vicki Warehime said a noise complaint was filed at 6 a.m. on Oct. 16. But because the officer saw no apparent criminal violation, a report was not filed.
Boardman said there was no company name on the backhoe to identify the contractor.
At the center of the mystery is the house that Mary and Bill Kraft bought in 1963 for $10,500. Since June, they had been battling to demolish the 11-room structure and sell the property to Towson Ford, which was expanding nearby.
But preservationists with the Baltimore County Historical Trust argued in favor of saving the home -- known as the Thomas Fortune House -- built by the famous mason who owned one of the area's many stone quarries. It was the last of a cluster of elegant Greek Revival-style stone houses at the end of Old Padonia Road.
Without the Krafts' knowledge, their house had been placed on the Maryland Historical Trust Inventory in 1979. That designation made it more difficult for them to obtain a demolition permit without approval from a hearing officer, according to county policy.
In a July interview, Mary Kraft said the situation was unfair because she could not sell her home to Towson Ford without a demolition permit. At the same time, she felt she could no longer live surrounded by a car dealership, masonry company and the light rail.
The Krafts were denied a demolition permit in August, pending the outcome of a Board of Appeals hearing set for Dec. 4.
On Tuesday, Blaine Leidy, president of Baltimore-based Haverhill Contracting Co. Inc., called the county department of permits to report that the Kraft house was gone.
"Whoever knocked it down did not haul it away," said Leidy, who had workers at a nearby site working on a new Lowe's store nearby. "There were nails sticking up and a basement there. It was dangerous so we called the county and asked if it was OK to clean it up.
"We do not know who tore it down," Leidy said. "When our people left the job on Friday afternoon, the house was standing. When our people arrived at 7 o'clock on Saturday morning, it was down."
The Krafts could not be reached for comment yesterday. But in a telephone interview more than a week ago, Mary Kraft said Towson Ford lent the couple the money to buy a new house in Pennsylvania, which the couple moved to several weeks ago.
Edward C. Covahey Jr., an attorney with whom the county has been dealing for Towson Ford, said yesterday:
"Neither the contract purchaser or I had anything to do with the demolition, or anything that occurred, on that property."
County buildings engineer John Reisinger said interviews of neighbors and businesses on the street are continuing.
If found guilty, the violator could face a $1,000 fine and possible criminal charges.
"The owner is ultimately responsible for what takes place on their property," said Reisinger, who added that the contractor could also be penalized for carrying out work without a permit.
But County Councilman T. Bryan McIntire said yesterday that the penalty might not be harsh enough to stop people from tearing down other historical landmarks in the county.
"The penalty is no deterrent," said McIntire, a north county-Owings Mills Republican. "This is an unfortunate case, but maybe we need to increase the fine to $100,000 and maybe people will think twice before tearing down an historic house without permits.
"I don't think we can risk allowing people to tear down important houses simply because there are more bucks in it for them," McIntire said.