Group includes Lisbon on endangered-sites list

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Lisbon is a town from another time, but its silent history is slowly rotting away.

The two-block "downtown" dates to 1822 - some buildings are even older - but the small community is not aging well, and several of its most notable architectural works sit empty.

A once-grand resort hotel exists in a sort of Catch-22: Its owner can't afford to restore it until a business agrees to move in, but it needs so much work that no business has bit.

A group of activists thinks the best remedy is publicity.

Preservation Howard County has added the town to its annual list of the top 10 endangered historic sites, highlighting Lisbon's challenges and its untapped potential.

Also new to the list is the Elk Ridge Assembly Rooms, which is deeply loved by residents in its historic neighborhood but has deteriorated past their ability to fix.

"We just try to keep it going, because it is such a treasure," said Mary Hofbauer Brown, president of the Lawyers Hill-based association that cares for the assembly hall. "The best possible thing would be if this grand dame [could have] a sugar daddy out there for her."

This is the third year Preservation Howard County has released its list, designed to shed light on beleaguered historical gems in a suburb that looks completely youthful at first glance.

The nonprofit group was founded in 2000 by people alarmed at how many sites were crumbling - or deemed in the way in one of the state's fastest-growing counties of the 20th century - and had been erased from existence.

A few of the sites on the top 10 list are endangered by development, although developers involved are trying to be sensitive to the buildings on their land. But most of the properties are owned by sympathetic residents without tens of thousands of dollars to spare for the necessary work - or by the county government, which often takes years to put together restoration projects.

The threatened buildings represent the range of early life in Howard, and include a one-room schoolhouse, a 23-room mansion, a barn, a chapel and several slave quarters.

That most of the structures are making repeat appearances on the list speaks volumes about the difficulties of historic preservation. It's expensive and time-consuming.

"Progress is slow, particularly for those sites that are owned by the county," said Fred Dorsey, vice president of Preservation Howard County. "Whether it's a good or a bad economic year ... preservation projects just don't seem to get the adequate funding that's required."

But county officials have proved more motivated recently, said the nonprofit's president, Mary Catherine Cochran. That's critical, she said, because dilapidated buildings can wait only so long for attention.

"They don't care if we have bad budget years," Cochran said. "They're going to fall down one way or the other."

In Lisbon, where the aging buildings are in private hands, preservationists think economic development - done right - could be the key to ensuring that the history there has a future.

Peter McIntosh, who owns the empty Lisbon Hotel, certainly thinks so. He has put sweat equity into the sagging building, which is at least 170 years old, but he can't pay for the extensive restoration needed until someone agrees to lease the place.

He said he easily can imagine renovations costing at least $150,000.

People have inquired about the hotel, but they were largely folks with a dream rather than a solid business plan, and they haven't come back, he said.

"It's a good thing to draw attention to the historical properties and the risk that they may disappear," said McIntosh, who lives in a house in Lisbon that's about as old as the hotel.

The fate of two nearly-200- year-old houses in town is up in the air. A Columbia firm applied for permits last year to raze them and build anew, but Lisbon residents protested and Brantly Development Group has spent months trying to find a way to fit the old buildings, the new buildings and the septic system on the 2.4-acre property.

The septic is the problem. Brantly officials have appealed to the Maryland Department of the Environment because the county rejected their proposal for holding tanks.

"We're trying to preserve those houses," said Hugh F. Cole Jr., Brantly's chairman of the board.

Still, his plans to develop the property shocked some residents into action. Stephanie Marple, who moved to the area three years ago, attracted by its small-town quality and longtime residents, has gone door to door to persuade people to preserve Lisbon by forming a historic district with extra regulations.

In Elkridge's Lawyers Hill, residents who see their assembly hall as the glue that holds the neighborhood together are trying their best to hold their hall together. Built in 1871 as a way to soothe tensions after the Civil War, the hall is where neighbors hold plays, dinners and Fourth of July celebrations.

It's not in danger of collapsing, but the striking cedar-shingled building requires more than $50,000 in repairs. Overflowing gutters need replacing, doors need repairing, part of the building is sinking, boards are rotting and animals get in through gaps between the floor and the wall.

The fund-raisers that neighbors hold - including one yesterday - are just enough to pay for basic maintenance.

Brown, who moved to Lawyers Hill six years ago, hopes the Elk Ridge Assembly Rooms' new status as one of the most endangered historic buildings in Howard County will bring help - and it doesn't have to be in the form of large cash contributions. If more people outside the neighborhood use the hall, she figures, more people will have a stake in its future.

"I'm thrilled, I am just beyond thrilled," Brown said when she learned the hall had made the list. "It is being cared for by people who want to preserve it, [but] we can't do it by ourselves."

Howard's endangered history

Here are the 10 most endangered historical sites in Howard County, according to the nonprofit Preservation Howard County:

1. Lisbon: The tiny downtown of this western Howard outpost dates to 1822, when a landowner laid out streets, alleys and 100 neat lots of about a quarter-acre each. Running through it is Route 144, the historic National Road, which brought a steady stream of visitors during Lisbon's heyday in the 19th century. Now some of its key buildings, including two from approximately 1810 and the Lisbon Hotel, which dates back at least 170 years, are empty and sad-looking.

2. Melvin Howard log building: Preservation Howard County -- and its private owners -- fear that this 19th-century building is just one car accident away from demolition. It sits less than 10 feet from a winding road in Glenwood and could uso a safer spot, plus some repairs to combat old age.

3. 1855 St. Louis Chapel: This is the original building of a now-sizable parish in Clarksville, and it's falling apart inside. Preservation-minded parishioners are eager to restore the chapel but have had trouble figuring out what materials were originally used to construct it. They're preparing to hire an architect to see what needs to be done and how much it will cost.

4. Pfeiffer's Corner School: This 19th-century one-room schoolhouse has sat in limbo for years, but its time finally appears to have come. Seventh-graders saved the building from demolition in 1989, when it was moved to a temporary spot on Route 108 with promises by the county to restore it. There it has sat as park planners waited for permits, architectural evaluations and more funding. Now it's about to be moved to Rockburn Branch Park in Elkridge to be part of a historic-building complex.

5. Montjoy: 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 subdividing the farm and has promised to save the manor, a log building and the presumed slave quarters, but the February blizzard caved in a wall on the last building. Preservationists hope all three end up preserved, and they're also eager to cart off a barn so it's out of the bulldozer's way.

6. Woodlawn Slave Quarters: Most of the choking vines are gone, thanks to the Columbia Association, but the roofless building still desperately needs to be stabilized. Preservation Howard County believes it might have predated a nearby 1840 farmhouse.

7. Blandair: The centerpiece of this 300-acre farm in the middle of Columbia is its red brick mansion, a 23-room introduction to the way the wealthy lived just before the Civil War. The county owns the property now and the water-damaged mansion -- plus its aging outbuildings -- needs expensive care. For two years running, county officials have lost their bid to get $500,000 from the state to help pay for the work. The mansion alone needs about $2 million, county officials estimate.

8. Rockburn Heritage Area: Preservation Howard County wants to make sure the two buildings already at this Elkridge site -- the one-room schoolhouse is on the way -- are finally restored. Clover Hill, above, a farmhouse built around 1798, is slated to be turned into a restaurant by an entrepreneur who has done minor repairs on the building but not the major work. A bank barn, built from logs in the late 1860s, has been considered for exhibits of early Howard agriculture, and National Park Service experts are expected to sign on to a stabilization project shortly.

9. Troy Hill: A fire set by trespassers 12 years ago gutted this 200-year-old stone house, which the county has owned since 1971. County officials are still intending to bring it back to life, but no timetable has been set for the interior work because they haven't decided how to best protect it from vandalism. National Park Service preservationists may do some work on the exterior.

10. Elk Ridge Assembly Rooms: Built in 1871, this community hall is the focal point of Lawyers Hill, the tiny historic district in the shadow of I-95 and I-895. Neighbors such as Pamela Dillon hold performances, potlucks and parties in the brown shingled building with distinctive red doors, but while they care for the building and grounds as best they can, they can't afford to pay more than $50,000 for needed repairs.

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