The two-story stone walls and arched windows of a 100-year-old seminary building stand out architecturally amid Terra Maria's decade-old, closely spaced single-family homes, but emotionally it is an integral part of the Ellicott City development.
"It is one of the focal points of the neighborhood," said Randy Citrano, treasurer of the Terra Maria homeowners association. "A lot of people know our neighborhood from this structure."
Like many historic structures in the county, weather, use and time have taken a toll on the roofless ruins off Route 144, which were once the social hall of St. Charles College.
Faced with stabilizing it, tearing it down - which would be just as expensive as repairs - or fencing it off for good, the homeowners association took on a $70,000 preservation project that began last month.
Among the repairs, coats of epoxy are being used to secure window lintels from the weather, a protective lead cap is being placed on top of the four walls, and mortar will be replaced in cracks and holes.
The association is paying for the project out of the money it has collected in dues, but Kim MacLean, the association president, said the group must come up with $30,000 to complete the project.
Residents have expressed support for saving the ruins, she said, but not necessarily for paying a fee to do it. Because the property will not become a public site, the association does not qualify for government funding or grants. But members hope to find outside financial support.
The site was included on Preservation Howard County's Top 10 list of endangered sites, the nonprofit organization announced yesterday, as an example of the difficulties faced by communities when development leaves a historic property in their care.
"It is an expensive undertaking for a small community," said Fred Dorsey, Preservation Howard County's second vice president.
He added: "This also underlines the time and expense that owners of historic homes face continually as an obligation and responsibility of ownership."
While the county has taken over some historic sites, local historian Joetta M. Cramm agreed that private owners play an important role in keeping older homes, and occasionally barns, schoolhouses and other structures, alive.
"I think the best historic pieces are still in private hands," she said. "There is not that much money in the public coffers to do it. I think people should be encouraged to help preserve various parts of the history."
St. Charles College opened in 1848 on 253 acres donated by Charles Carroll of Carrollton from his land at Doughoregan Manor, according to Cramm's book, Howard County: A Pictorial History. By 1898, the seminary had graduated 900 students who were ordained as Roman Catholic priests.
A fire destroyed the college in 1911, and it was rebuilt in Catonsville. The Howard County land was a private park for several years and the site of gospel events in the early 1900s. Development began on Terra Maria in the mid-1990s.
When Ryland Homes - the second of two companies to build in the neighborhood - finished the last of 103 houses, the seminary ruins became the property of the homeowners association.
The ruins, which were updated by a previous owner with lights, a wooden balcony and a refurbished stone floor, have become a popular place for neighborhood children to play, families to gather and the neighborhood to hold ice cream socials and movie nights.
It took several years of discussion to get a preservation effort off the ground, MacLean said, but most people in the neighborhood wanted the historic structure to remain a part of the landscape.
"It eventually would come to the point where you couldn't be in here," MacLean said. "Kids play here all the time. ... You don't want stones coming down on their heads."
In 2005, the homeowners association commissioned an engineering study and considered its options. A historically accurate restoration would have been too costly, MacLean said. But Structural Preservation Systems in Elkridge was able to offer visually appropriate options that were more affordable.
Cramm said she believes the Terra Maria homeowners will see the benefits of maintaining the seminary structure.
"It's like having an attractive garden or something. If they keep it up and use it properly, it could be something even families that move away would remember."
MacLean has the same idea. She said: "With so many developments that look the same, this makes us a little unique."