The quaint white chapel tucked in a graveyard is hiding its age well. Too well.
The warped shingles on the roof are hard to see. The peeling stucco blends in even better. Unless you wander inside -- where there is no floor and a gaping hole of a cellar -- you would probably assume the building was in fine health.
After 147 years, the Catholic church nearly as old as Howard County is slowly deteriorating as a handful of parishioners try in vain to find a key piece of information about the Clarksville building's original condition so they can restore it accurately.
Preservation Howard County is hoping the bright light of publicity will help.
Group leaders have dubbed the 1855 St. Louis Church one of the county's top 10 endangered historic places to persuade more people to pay attention to it, and to other pieces of Howard heritage threatened by decay, demolition or development.
"We do have quite a wealth of sites in Howard County, and there are some that are in dire need," said Fred Dorsey, the preservation organization's vice president.
The top 10 list, to be released today, highlights buildings -- many sagging -- that explain without words how Howard countians from long ago lived, farmed, worshipped and were educated. In general, it is not bulldozers but a lack of money, manpower or expertise that are the obstacles to their long-term existence.
Seven of the sites are making a repeat appearance on the list, which is in its second year. Among that group are the 18th-century Clover Hill farmhouse in the Rockburn Park Heritage Area, the 19th-century Pfeiffer's Corner School and the 35-year-old Columbia Exhibit Center, a baby as buildings go but one of the first erected in the planned community.
Some owners -- such as the Rouse Co. -- do not want to be on the list. Ellicott City resident Sue Stein is sorry that the 19th-century graveyard she adopted was taken off.
She has had more help since the Dorsey Arcadia Cemetery near U.S. 40 was named one of the top 10 last year, but it is still overgrown and still dotted with dead trees, broken headstones and sunken crypts. "I do what I can, which isn't a whole lot anymore," said Stein, 78.
Besides St. Louis Church, the new arrivals on the list are the Marvin Howard Log Building in Glenwood and Troy, a 19th-century stone house built on a land grant that dates to the late 1600s.
The State Roads Commission bought Troy in 1958 to prepare for construction of Interstate 95, but the house with four chimneys survived and spent the next 10 years as rental property.
After that, however, no one was left to protect it from trespassers and vandals. A fire believed to have been started by people sleeping in the building gutted it in 1991, leaving nothing but the four exterior walls.
"The house just deteriorated terribly," said Joetta Cramm, a local historian frustrated that the building made it more than 150 years in good shape until it lost the care that comes with daily use. "It's had a sad, sad history."
Howard County, which has owned the building since 1971, stabilized it 10 years ago and intends to restore it. Officials have not settled on a use but are planning a recreational park on the 81 acres around Troy.
Preservation Howard County believes the 19th-century log building in Glenwood is one of the few remaining locally that has not been substantially altered. A log cabin on the group's list last year was destroyed by arsonists in September, a few weeks after the county Department of Recreation and Parks began restoring it as a museum.
The privately owned Marvin Howard Log Building has a rough charm, but peeling plaster hangs from between the logs. Cars zoom by on a country road less than 10 feet away.
"I'm afraid someone's going to run into it," said Katherine Cunningham, whose family lives on the property in a nearby 19th-century farmhouse. "It would be nice to move it back farther from the road, but we just can't do it right now."
With four children, three goats and two donkeys to care for, the Cunninghams have neither the time nor the money for a preservation project.
The aged St. Louis Church, on the other hand, has the advantage of its connection with one of the largest congregations in Howard County.
By 1889, parishioners outgrew the little building on Ten Oaks Road and constructed a chapel a half-mile away on what is now Route 108. In 1980, they built the present 625-seat church next door.
The middle building was recently restored and is used for small liturgies, but the original has not had a service in decades -- or much else, for that matter.
Inside, bricks peek through the peeling green paint on the walls. Some of the window panes are broken, the stairway leading to the choir loft is gone and the dirt exposed by the torn-out floor gives the place an earthy scent.
George Kuegler of Columbia who is helping to research St. Louis' history, can see beyond that to intriguing details, such as windows topped by triangles instead of the traditional arches.
"It's old farmers -- poor farmers -- who put this thing together," he said.
For 32 years, as St. Louis' facilities manager, Chris Feaga has helped keep the building looking nice on the outside so no one would suggest it be torn down. But when groundhogs undermined the supports and made the floor fall in eight years ago or so, he knew it was time for an overhaul.
History-minded folks want to repair the building so it looks as it once did, before later renovations switched building materials and turned two windows into doors. A small committee of parishioners is looking for clues. But after two years, no one has figured out whether the roof was originally made of cedar, metal or slate, and the inside work cannot start until the roof is fixed.
If anyone had old photographs or sketches, Feaga could try to re-create the interior -- but so far he is not certain whether the parish used pews or benches.
"We're not getting off of first base," he said. "You run into so many roadblocks."
He does not mind that preservationists are labeling St. Louis' first building "endangered" -- maybe that will turn up the information he needs -- but Feaga has no intention of letting the chapel fall down.
He is a lifelong member of the parish, and its origins are important to him. If need be, he will replace the roof with anything that will do.
"I love it," he said. "The older I get, the more sentimental I get."
Endangered history in Howard
Here are the 10 most endangered historical sites in Howard County as assessed by Preservation Howard County:
Once impressive, now decaying, the 17-room Blandair mansion and its outbuildings sit on 300 acres - in Columbia but totally apart from it, passionately protected by Elizabeth C. "Nancy" Smith until her death in 1997. A portion of the house might date to the 18th century. The county now owns the farm and installed a temporary roof on the mansion to stop leaks, but this year officials could not persuade the state to allocate $500,000 for restoration work.
Columbia Exhibit Center
Young by most standards, the 35-year-old center with a lake view made the list because Preservation Howard County sees it as the symbolic beginning to the town that forever altered the county's direction. The Rouse Co. has said some of its earliest buildings, such as the concrete-and-stucco center, were never intended to last forever and will be replaced someday.
What was described as a "grand hotel" in the 1860s - a building with a distinctive second-floor balcony that lured visitors by coach and train from Baltimore - is deteriorating rapidly. It sits on Route 144, the historic National Road.
Marvin Howard Log Building
The 19th-century structure needs work, but mostly it needs a safer place to sit. It's less than 10 feet from a winding road in Glenwood. Preservation Howard County worries that an errant car could easily destroy the building, which was used as a residence until the late 1980s.
Historians say part of this Ellicott City farm's manor house could date to as early as 1695, and they believe at least one of its outbuildings was once slave quarters. Winchester Homes is planning a development with more than 450 units on 76 acres, and though the manor will not be demolished - and changes were made to the plans to save the presumed slave quarters - Preservation Howard County wants to ensure good intentions are seen through.
Pfeiffer's Corner School
Seventh-graders saved the one-room schoolhouse from demolition in 1988 so the county could open it to the public. Since then, the 19th-century building that spent its later years as a house has deteriorated in a temporary spot alongside Route 108 in Ellicott City, waiting for the right home and funding. The county Department of Recreation and Parks hopes to move it this year to a planned heritage area at Rockburn Park in Elkridge.
Rockburn Park Heritage Area
Though some repair and rebuilding work has started at the Elkridge site, the long-awaited center's two on-site buildings still need restoration, and there is no definite timetable. Clover Hill, a brick farmhouse that was built about or before 1798, will be adapted to be a restaurant. The Aaron McKenzie Barn, built from logs in the late 1860s, likely will have exhibits of early Howard agriculture.
1855 St. Louis Church
The original building of a now-sizable parish, the 1855 St. Louis Church in Clarksville looks pretty fit on the outside. Inside, it's falling apart. Parishioners are eager to restore the chapel, but they need to replace the roof first, and they cannot determine what materials were used originally.
Only the shell remains of this stone house in Elkridge because a fire set by trespassers 11 years gutted the interior. Built about 1800, Troy was bought by the State Roads Commission in preparation for Interstate 95 and has not had a legal tenant since 1968. Howard County, which has owned the building since 1971, intends to restore it but has not settled on a plan.
Woodlawn Slave Quarters
The Columbia Association cut back most of the vines choking it, but the roofless building still looks as if it is one thunderstorm away from collapse. Preservation Howard County is working with the Columbia Association to stabilize the structure, which might have predated a nearby 1840 farmhouse.