ONE OF Howard County's oldest structures, an 18th-century manor house known as Dorsey Hall, will be restored as part of a $3.5 million office center scheduled to open early next year.
Howard County Executive James N. Robey joined developers Richard Talkin and Donald Reuwer on Tuesday to break ground for the project, called the Dorsey Hall Manor Executive Offices.
The development, at 5100 Dorsey Hall Drive in Columbia, will include the construction of 32,000 square feet of office space in four two-story buildings.
The new offices and the restored manor house will frame a landscaped quadrangle on the 5.4-acre property, and the new buildings have been designed to reflect the Federal style of the original house.
"We wanted to retain the unique character of the site," said Talkin. "We are preserving the tree line along Dorsey Hall Drive so that the offices are contained in a secluded, private campus. And the new buildings will be clad in stone and stucco, like the original buildings on the property, rather than more contemporary materials."
According to the developers, the three-story dwelling has been vacant since the late 1960s, when the Rouse Co. acquired it. For most of its existence, it had been owned by successive generations of Dorseys, a prominent family in Howard County.
According to historians, the Dorsey Hall property was patented in 1695 to the Honorable John Dorsey as Dorsey's Search. In his 1714 will, Dorsey left the tract to his grandson, "Patuxent John" Dorsey, who began building a house there in 1714. In 1744, Patuxent John Dorsey deeded the land to his son Eli, who added in about 1760 what is now the east side of the house. Eli's daughter, Elizabeth, and her husband, Judge Richard Ridgely, further enlarged the house in 1798.
Considered a prime example of stone and brick vernacular architecture of the 18th and 19th centuries in Howard County, the house now falls within Columbia's Village of Dorsey's Search and is surrounded by commercial and residential developments. Talkin and Reuwer said they acquired the property from Rouse earlier this year for $785,000, with the understanding that the manor house must be preserved.
During the groundbreaking ceremony, Talkin said he has driven by the house for years and believed it had strong redevelopment potential.
"I always assumed it would be a restaurant or a bed-and-breakfast," he said, "but nothing ever happened."
Talkin said he began seriously considering developing the property about a year and a half ago, when a real estate agent alerted him that Rouse was seeking a buyer.
Although he was interested, he said, he didn't think it would be a good idea to attach a large office addition to the house, as some developers had proposed. Instead, he and Reuwer reasoned that constructing a series of small buildings in a campus-like setting would be more appropriate to the setting, while also appealing to the local office market. Their plans call for each of the four new buildings to contain 8,000 square feet of space and designed so suites could be leased in 1,000-square-foot increments.
The two developers said they had success with a similarly scaled development called Simpsonville Mill, on Grace Drive in Columbia. In that case, the property was the site of an old mill on a bank of the Little Patuxent River, and they built two office buildings that are partially clad in stone and designed to evoke old mill buildings. The project was leased rapidly, demonstrating a strong demand for offices of that size and scale, they said.
Talkin and Reuwer said they believe the new development will appeal to a variety of professionals, from accountants and architects to doctors and attorneys. Talkin said they haven't decided exactly how the manor house will be restored, but options include offices, conference space, a restaurant, museum branch or art gallery. He said the development team will restore the exterior first, and then work on the interior once possible tenants emerge. Because the interior has extensive termite damage, he said, it will have to be substantially reconstructed.
Greg Mitchell of GMA&D; in Columbia is the architect. Old Town Construction of Ellicott City is the builder.