Old school, new lessons


It took a year for a group of seventh-graders to research history, lobby government officials and raise $16,500 to save a 19th-century one-room schoolhouse in Howard County.

It's taken 11 years for government officials to fulfill their promise to restore the building.

Known as Pfeiffer's Corner School, the building sits in its "temporary" spot on Route 108 outside Clarksville, deteriorating as the gears of bureaucracy slowly turn. The activist pupils from Hammond Middle School are college graduates, some with careers influenced by the project.

But county officials - who say the delay is partly related to the intricacies of historical preservation - say they believe that the end of the wait is near. Contractors are preparing land for the school at Rockburn Branch Park in Elkridge. County Department of Recreation and Parks officials expect to have the building there in a year, and they think that it will be ready for use as an educational center within two years at most.

"It has taken us a long time - we'll admit that - but we're just about at the level where this all is going to open up for everyone," said Gary J. Arthur, Recreation and Parks director. "Hopefully, in a year and a half we'll have living-history tours there."

The pupils' former gifted-and-talented teacher, who has followed the project from the beginning, has learned not to get her hopes up.

"I've been hearing that for so many years," said Pat Greenwald, who once taught at Hammond and works at Clarksville Middle. "I never dreamt that it was going to be there that long."

She wants the building to see new life and worries that it might be too far gone in two years.

The school, its German lap wood siding weathered and gray, has holes in its roof that are partly covered by blue tarps. Siding and boards have fallen off. Windows are gone. Once painted pale yellow, the building's color is all but imperceptible.

"It was so important to me and these kids for so long, and to see it just sit there," Greenwald said. "I get upset every time I drive by it. It's looking really, really bad.

The building had stood on Route 108, near Waterloo Elementary School. Built in the 1880s, possibly earlier, it was used as a school until the 1930s. Vernon Tittsworth bought the building for $500 in 1940 and converted it into a house.

About 26 Hammond seventh-graders got involved in 1988 when they heard that the land had been bought and would be developed. They petitioned officials to move the building, raised $16,500 in donations and grants to cover the expense, and - the next school year - persuaded county and state politicians to each contribute $100,000 for renovations.

"It was like campaigning," recalled Paul Menard, 24, one of the Hammond pupils drafted for public speaking during the project and now a stage actor in Washington. "Major classes were devoted just to working on it," he said.

The building was moved to its temporary spot in 1989, Greenwald said, with promises of a permanent home.

"For a lot of us, it was such a big deal just to get it moved," said Lindsay McCaskill, who is studying law at the University of Chicago. "We weren't thinking that it was just going to sit there. It was something we thought that everyone should see."

Greenwald said she continues to get calls from her former pupils, who want to know why the school hasn't been restored.

"There isn't any good reason," said Doby Tordella, who was the pupils' social studies teacher and is the gifted-and-talented teacher at Hammond. "I think it's terrible. The students did a tremendous amount of work on this."

Clara Gouin, a park planner with the Department of Recreation and Parks, understands the frustration, but she said historical renovation projects take a lot of behind-the-scenes work.

Park officials planned to move the school to the Middle Patuxent Environmental Area, near its temporary site, but the county could not acquire the necessary land.

About six years ago, the county decided to use Rockburn Branch Park - with the school to be part of a complex of historic buildings.

Then came the process of getting permits and requesting additional money from the county, Arthur said. An additional $120,000 was needed.

Next, an architectural historian had to figure out what the school looked like before it was converted into a house with a second story and gables. The study, which restoration workers will use as a guide, was completed in 1998.

Contractors are installing utilities. A parking lot is next.

"We've been moving along on the project," Gouin said. "It has been a long row to hoe, but sometimes, in the interest of historical accuracy, you have to be careful. A lot of detective work had to be done."

Menard said he thinks that part of the problem was that his seventh-grade class, which made the project a priority, couldn't continue agitating on its behalf when it was time for high school.

"Once it got moved, that's where the story ended for a lot of people," he said. "You have to keep reminding people."

The former Hammond pupils say they're disappointed but not embittered by the delay. They say they think that the work they did was rewarding - prompting many of them to study subjects such as law, politics and historical preservation in college.

But one lesson the pupils learned during their preservation project was disillusioning. Asked in 1989 to evaluate the experience, their response proved prophetic:

"The first thing they said is: 'Government moves very slowly,'" Greenwald said.

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