Developer, preservationists join to preserve an old store wall that is uniquely Hereford

The Baltimore Sun

The shop stood for more than a century in the heart of a small northern Baltimore County village, but now most of the structure has been torn down. What's left looks not so much like a historic landmark as a stage set under construction.

And preservationists are delighted.

By keeping the front wall of Hereford's 19th-century Batchelor store, a developer will be able to incorporate a century-old length of cornice from what had once been a general store into the design of his new office building. And while the original structure had been drained of historical significance by decades of additions and renovations, its replacement will be modeled after the building as it appears in a photograph from 1910.

For Patricia L. Bentz, director of the Baltimore County Historical Trust, in a county where developers, preservationists and elected officials have clashed for years, that's a better result than simply knocking the building to the ground.

"It would completely change the character of the town if it weren't there," she says.

The Batchelor store, on York Road at the end of Mount Carmel Road, was built between 1873 and 1886, according to the Maryland Historical Trust. The building was first used by a cabinetmaker as a shop, according to historical records. By 1889, it was a general store that would be operated, over decades, by several families.

The building was officially designated a historic landmark by the county last June. But renovations, according to the county's historian in 1980, had "ruined in almost every possible way" the structure's best feature: the handsome wood molding and bracketing adorning the front of the building.

Bob Zgorski, who has owned the property since 1982, was planning to tear the whole thing down.

And, at first, no one seemed to mind.

"The siding has been changed two or three times," says Zgorski, a retired Annapolis auto parts store executive and now a local developer. "The windows have been changed two or three times."

A metal building was added on the rear of the property sometime around 1980, he says.

Even a descendant of the Batchelor family, which first opened a general store at the spot, wrote to county officials saying he didn't object to Zgorski's plans. And the local community association gave its support for the store's demolition in 2004.

"It really was in a poor shape," says Paul Z. Cummins II, president of the Hereford Community Association. "Yes, it was a general store, but it was also a pizza shop, too, and a lot of other things over the years."

But historic preservation has long been a high-stakes political issue in Baltimore County. More than a decade after the 18th-century Samuel Owings House was torn down, preservationists are still talking about the loss and blaming local politicians.

That demolition was the first in a string that caused public outcry, including the 1997 razing of a 190-year-old cabin in Sudbrook Park. A month later, a historically protected 19th-century Green Spring Valley house was knocked down after county officials mistakenly issued a demolition permit.

More recently, the county's top lawyer lost his job amid criticism about how he handled the 2005 demolition of a 19th-century house in Hunt Valley.

The idea of tearing down the building that some residents still refer to as the Batchelor store didn't seem right to Bentz and other preservationists.

If the store were razed, current building codes would have dictated that the replacement be built farther from the road, she says. Instead of seeing the old general store, residents would have been greeted by the sight of parked cars in front of an office building at the end of Mount Carmel Road.

Faced with opposition from local historic preservationists and enticed by historic tax credits, Zgorski agreed to restore what he could of the rapidly deteriorating landmark.

His family's development company, Zgorski Family LLC, will spend about $1 million on the project. But the 20-year historic tax credits will offset some of the expense, Zgorski says. "Before that, it was going to cost too much to renovate any of it."

When the project is complete this fall, the building will look as it did nearly a century ago, says Zgorski. The vinyl siding will be removed and the exposed cinder block will be covered with cedar clapboard. The window frames will be wood, in the same position as they were at the turn of the 20th century, he says.

"I got a picture of it from a lady at a church up there," says Zgorski. "That picture is what we're going by."

The building will have about 4,000 square feet. It will be one level, but will look as if it's two stories, says Zgorski, whose seven children now own the property, with their father acting as the general manager.

The renovation is expected to be finished in October. After that, Zgorski says he wants to build a compatible-looking office and retail building on a nearly 1-acre parcel his family owns next door.

"We're just delighted that at least the facade has been saved," says Bentz. "It's a good example of preservationists and a developer working together."

Zgorski agrees.

"It's going to be the talk of the town," he says.

That is, if it isn't already.

Most of the building has been demolished. The front porch hangs onto a facade partially covered with plywood and crumbling at the edges. One side wall, concrete block covered by siding, still stands.

"It really will look nice," says Cummins, who has seen the drawings for the renovation.

"Right now, though, everyone is laughing about it," he says. "Well, except those in local historic preservation."

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