For more than a half-century, one of the few constants in Jack Mowll's life has been his house, a onetime chicken farm that had been transformed into a rambling old "shore home" on the banks of Sue Creek, on the Back River peninsula of Baltimore County.
It wasn't his childhood home -- he was 22 when his parents bought the house in 1938. Four years later, he scraped up $4,000 to buy it from them. Since then, he has managed to hold onto it despite consulting jobs that sent him everywhere from Philadelphia to the Philippines.
When a fire of unknown origin swept through the 13-room house just before Christmas 1998, he decided to turn tragedy into opportunity. As an active crusader for the state's Rural Legacy Program, Mowll thought it made sense to build an "environmentally compatible" house that would blend in with the tree-studded lot and use a geothermal heating system. He spent $3,000 on plans for a house called the "Prow," with large windows facing the water.
Now, almost two years later, Mowll, 84, has a house that he says is not even one-third complete. He is facing eviction from the White Marsh apartment where he and his wife, Milagros, have been living since winter last year. He has fired his contractor and sued him for negligence. He has also sued his insurance company, Cigna, insisting the company must continue to pay his rent because it recommended the contractor, Lance Redman Corp.
The tangle of charges and countercharges is as twisty as the rural roads that lead to Mowll's house-in-progress, a two-story frame with plastic-sheeted windows and a tarpaper roof.
"We had a beautiful lawn, covered with jonquils," Mowll said as he led a tour of the property last week, a twigged branch in hand to sweep away the spider webs at the construction site. Mowll fired the contractors July 31, more than a year after the company signed a contract to build the house in six months.
Cigna's parent company, ACE-INA Holdings, declined to comment because of the pending litigation. The phone for the contractor, Lance Redman Corp., is temporarily disconnected, and there was no answer at the homes of Bruce and Edward Redman, the people with whom Mowll said he has dealt.
Temporary Housing Solutions, an Atlanta-based firm, confirmed that eviction proceedings against Mowll and his wife would begin if they did not vacate the White Marsh apartment by noon Aug. 31.
"I understand they're in a legal battle ... but I have had no dealings with anyone but the Mowlls," said Aaron Wilson of Temporary Housing Solutions. "All I've asked is that the Mowlls move out or sign a lease."
Wilson and Mowll agree that the initial term was to be six months, at more than $1,800 a month for the apartment and its rented furnishings. But Mowll said the agreement was between Cigna and the housing agency.
Mowll does have a two-page contract, dated March 15, 1999, that shows Lance Redman Corp.'s proposal for the new house. The cost was estimated at $321,536.60, and the contract stipulated the work would begin April 1 last year and be finished six months later.
According to Mowll, his insurance company set up an escrow account of $240,793.60 with his mortgage holder, GMAC Mortgage Corp. Mowll continued to pay his $215,000 mortgage -- about $2,000 a month -- while GMAC was to release money to Lance Redman Corp. at key phases in the project.
The contract said Lance Redman Corp. was to receive 33 percent of the money on acceptance; 25 percent when the demolition, excavation and block work were completed, and the first-floor joists and sub plywood were in place; 25 percent when the framing and roofing, wiring, plumbing and ductwork were done and doors and windows were installed; and the balance at completion.
But Mowll maintains that Lance Redman Corp. received payments in July last year, when a GMAC inspector judged the house to be 40 percent completed, and in October, when it was said to be 60 percent done. Then, in December, Mowll said, an additional $50,000 was paid by GMAC. (Joan Dalfarra, a GMAC spokeswoman, confirmed that Mowll was up to date on mortgage payments and said GMAC could not comment otherwise because of Mowll's suit, though it is not a defendant.)
In May, GMAC asked for another inspection. This time, Mowll said, the verdict was that the house was 30 percent complete.
For now, Mowll and his wife remain in the White Marsh apartment. They have been informed that eviction proceedings will begin Sunday.
Standing on his property, he spread open the book that contained the plans for the house he had hoped to build and wondered when, if ever, he would be able to return home.